Though it is easy to imagine him recoiling in horror from the appellation, Dan Bejar is quintessentially a songwriter’s songwriter. All through the back rooms of the world at night, admiring cohorts are whispering that that Bejar is one motherfucker you just can’t beat for trying. Seriously, he is so good it can be genuinely aggravating — like he’s playing a different sport from other songwriters. Take this not atypical account from celebrated recording artist (and Stereogum contributor) James Jackson Toth:
When Rubies came out, I was in the middle of making a record. I’d been a fan of Thief and Streethawk, so I went to buy the new Destroyer album while some tedious percussion overdub was going on at the studio. I wish I hadn’t because it inspired a meltdown of Brian Wilson-hearing-Sgt. Pepper’s proportions. I suddenly wanted to scrap the album I was working on. Rubies was so great it actually made me mad at Dan Bejar. I was totally jealous. This has really only happened one other time — when I heard Bill Callahan’s A River Ain’t Too Much To Love while making a previous album. As such, I put Bejar alongside Callahan (and Vic Chesnutt) as one of the greatest that ever was.
You hear that kind of thing a lot about Bejar. A sensational songsmith and quite possibly the greatest lyricist of his generation, throughout his seventeen-year recording career as Destroyer he has been an ever evolving bastion of brilliance, beginning strong with his dedicatedly lo-fi releases We’ll Build Them A Golden Bridge and City Of Daughters and advancing gradually to the near perfect heights of Destroyer’s Rubies and 2011’s masterpiece Kaputt. Currently there is no one better, or more idiosyncratic, working within the idiom.
Taken in full, Bejar’s catalog has little in common with contemporary norms or trends. And truthfully, to contextualize his work in terms of its historic touchstones is thorny and perhaps not particularly helpful. There was the oft-noted Hunky Dory-era Bowie-ism’s of the early records Thief and Streethawk: A Seduction; secondhand accounts of his ambitions for the sprawling, panoramic This Night alleged an attempt to conceptualize Morrissey fronting Neil Young’s band from Tonight’s The Night; the aggressively inorganic synths of Your Blues nodded to Leonard Cohen’s great mid-career albums I’m Your Man and The Future, while the soft-rock atmospherics of Rubies and Kaputt betray a fondness for Roxy Music and terrific, underappreciated late-’70s Van Morrison records like Inarticulate Speech Of The Heart. All these rock critic reference points are true, but herein lies the problem — none of them really explains very much about listening to Destroyer. (Further complicating the issue is Bejar’s own preoccupation with the literal mention of popular music in his lyrics — he is constantly prone to digressions about and quotations from other songwriters. Listening to his records can occasionally feel like paging through a particularly bright and highly peculiar ’80s ‘zine.)
In this way, Bejar tempts critics to explain his music in conventional terms, to play the kind of rock music-as-continuum SAT game that is “The Velvet Underground is to Sonic Youth as (BLANK) is to Destroyer.” Hell, with all the name-dropping, he practically baits the trap. It is pretty much all misdirection. There is no combination of influences that remotely explains Bejar’s writing. He is that rarest of birds in a genre practically premised on the recycling of old tropes — a truly visionary original.
What does a Destroyer song sound like? And what in the hell is Bejar singing about? Again, attempts at deconstructing these questions tend to defy a useful vocabulary, and ultimately flatter neither critic nor artist. You could say that his most persistent themes involve love and aesthetics, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but that doesn’t make it any more of an adequate description. There is his utterly characteristic adenoidal singing voice, a great instrument capable of subtlety, vitriol and a flare for difficult, exhilarating phrasing unparalleled anywhere this side of Bob Dylan. Increasingly, his songs have pared back in terms of overt musical complexity, favoring simple themes over the borderline vaudeville showiness of some of his early composition. But Bejar has sacrificed nothing in this process, trading tricky bridges and complex song structures for songs of arresting efficiency and startling gravity.
Bejar’s lyrics are unarguably and unapologetically poetic, replete with allegorical mysteries, romantic allusions, tender verses, and bitter recriminations, and even the occasional turn into what feels like surreal, Coleridge-style prophesy. This is dicey business for rock and roll, whose relationship with the overtly poetic has tended to yield the most insufferably pretentious results. Bringing to bear the enormity of his talent, Bejar consistently skips through these hurdles, deflating high-minded sentiments with gut-punch humor, persistently managing the neat trick of keeping one foot in the academy and the other one in the gutter. He sings, most often, with a journalistic remove, assessing the culture and society around him with the gimlet eye of one who spends more time thinking and observing rather than actually participating. On what was perhaps his first truly great song, “Destroyer’s The Temple,” Bejar sang that there is “joy in being barred from the temple,” and that sentiment is one possible leitmotif for understanding his work at large. He is consummately a chosen outsider, an underground figure in the music industry, a born poet ghettoized by his association with rock and roll, a native Canadian constantly reckoning with the enormous vulgarities and possibilities of his looming American cousin — “so violently in bloom.” Some have remarked that Bejar’s lyrics are inscrutable, and maybe some are, but for the most part it really isn’t true. The guy clearly grooves to his own head, but put a little time into it, and you can usually get a good sense of what’s at stake.
There really isn’t a bad Destroyer release, and there are several that easily qualify as great. Discerning music fans would do themselves a wealth of good purchasing everything that follows on this list. Perhaps most thrilling is the fact that Bejar seems to be achieving ever more appreciable creative heights, and unlike other acts whose promise understandably fades as their first and best ideas give way to aimlessness and uncertainty, Destroyer appears poised to dazzle us in ever novel and distinctive ways. Here is a rundown of the records so far with an excited eye on what’s to follow.
Start the Countdown here.