Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Destroyer Labyrinthitis

Merge
2022
Merge
2022

Dan Bejar has spent the past half-decade on a winding path. For the last couple Destroyer albums, Bejar and his frequent collaborator John Collins have been increasingly forging ahead into a synthier, occasionally poppier direction. This is Destroyer we’re talking about, so “poppier” still allows for songs that fray and wander at the edges. This was especially true of 2020’s Have We Met, an album that was often pretty but also bleak and chilly. It was even true of 2017’s Ken, where, despite embracing a hooky new wave sound, Destroyer’s eccentricities weren’t ironed out. Now they’re back with Labyrinthitis, an album that takes this recent Destroyer sound and stretches it to both extremes. It is some of Bejar’s most accessible and danceable music ever, even as it warps and drifts further off into the ether.

Labyrinthitis often fires off into surprising directions — ones that were surprising to the people who made it, too. Bejar and Collins began work on these songs during lockdown in 2020, trading ideas back and forth from their respective homes. Originally, the vision was to make a straight-up techno album: Bejar imagined one persistent 4/4 beat running through Side A, and another through side B. In interviews, he’s alternately described the album’s initial premise as a “high-energy Cher record” or inspired by Donna Summer. The final product still bears a more amplified dancefloor ethos than was ever present in Destroyer’s music, with Bejar namechecking disco, New Order, and Art Of Noise as inspirations.

While the early 2020 arrival of the dread-laden Have We Met now feels like a prologue to the looming pandemic, Labyrinthitis emerged directly from those times. Bejar’s no stranger to sardonically dark themes, but evil and destruction loom over Labyrinthitis. When introducing the album with lead single “Tintoretto, It’s For You,” Bejar was talking about the Grim Reaper and “being pursued by some silent, unnamable thing that constantly lurks one foot to the left of you. Especially as the world’s decay becomes increasingly less abstract.” He elaborated in an interview with Pitchfork: “Usually, Destroyer stuff is set in a crumbling world, and that decay is a backdrop to some kind of 20th century-style adventure. But I didn’t see that in anything I wrote … Labyrinthitis is supposed to be really disorienting.”

The name, of course, suggests that disorientation. Bejar himself has pointed out how it looks like a made up term, but it’s in fact a medical condition involving inflammation of a part of the inner ear — Bejar stumbled upon it during a rough bout of tinnitus when he was convinced he had something else going on. Speaking to Uproxx, he said it could theoretically apply to someone “who’s addicted to mazes, or someone who chronically takes the wrong turn.” It’s a fitting way to approach the album. Labyrinthitis flashes between moods and textures, and it barely stops moving across its 10 tracks.

Take just the first three songs for example. Labyrinthitis opens with the spacious, gorgeous “It’s In Your Heart Now,” a song where the New Order influence can be prominently felt as Bejar and Collins open up a whole horizon of synth-pop dreamscapes. Then the album kicks in with “Suffer,” a straight-up synth banger that was bafflingly not a single — or at least it would be baffling if we weren’t talking about someone like Bejar, who would of course instead go with something like “June.” The album’s third track, “June” is a sprawling epic that holds Labyrinthitis‘ extremes as one journey divided into two halves. What begins as a lilting, floaty track eventually gives way to a zonked second half in which Bejar sing-speaks over funky basslines as Collins manipulates his voice into all kinds of melted pitches and robot tones.

Sometimes, these songs are poppy in shocking ways even after a set of albums that found Destroyer playing with pop forms more and more. In the fadeout of “Suffer,” Bejar lets loose with the title in a way that almost conjures Bono’s cadences. And if Destroyer fans were taken aback by the slinky beats of Have We Met‘s “Cue Synthesizer,” they might be really bowled over by the fleet-footed groove and easygoing melodies of “It Takes A Thief.” But elsewhere, things get bugged out again. Bejar has talked about how a lot of the songs are foreign to him, whether because of Collins’ lead or what the band members contributed — he amusingly references the roiling and death-obsessed “Tintoretto” as a “synth mall-metal dirge” in the Pitchfork interview, and he’s not exactly wrong. While that might be the most aggressive track, Labyrinthitis still coasts into abstractions along the way, whether in its instrumental title track or the spectral dance music of “The States,” an alluring drone that leads Bejar into a rare autobiographical moment recalling his younger self bumming around America in the early days of his career.

Mostly, though, the album seems to be coming from a sinister place. In its way, Have We Met is more of a stereotypical “pandemic album” given its claustrophobia and murmured anxieties. In interviews, Bejar keeps talking about a sort of cartoon villainy present on Labyrinthitis, and it’s true that the album’s darkness responds with a kind of bombast and occasional hilarity on the other side of the last two years. There are characteristic but amplified sneers, like “A snow angel’s a fucking idiot somebody made” in “June,” or the fact that the infectious “Suffer” is, really and truly, just about suffering and death.

Yet as much as Labyrinthitis lives up to its name, zigging and zagging like a maze, there’s something almost hopeful lingering within the core of it. Bejar has said he finds the album disconcerting, that he finds no comfort from it. But relative to the arcane angles of Destroyer’s career, it’s hard not to hear “It’s In Your Heart Now” or “The States” and sink into a reflective mood rather than a harried one. As much as Labyrinthitis is designed to be “incoherent,” there is really an arc — atmospheric reflections at its beginning and end, veering off the road here and there in the middle, but ultimately coming back home. After all, one of its biggest left turns is actually a reclamation of old-school Destroyer vibes: “The Last Song” ends the album with just Bejar and guitar, a quiet epilogue intended as a resolution after all the zaniness before it.

It might also be a resolution to a certain version of Destroyer. With Bejar positing that Labyrinthitis could be the end of a trilogy begun with Ken and Have We Met, perhaps we’re soon in store for Destroyer’s next transformation. When Have We Met came out, it first struck me as a capstone to Bejar’s ’10s work. Now the picture is clearer, more complete. From synthscapes and beats both muscular on Ken and diffuse on Have We Met, Bejar ventured further into the wilderness. Labyrinthitis a frazzled, entrancing, hilarious, poignant collection of songs. Which, of course, is not only a fitting conclusion to the trilogy — it’s exactly what you want out of a Destroyer album.

Labyrinthitis is out 3/25 on Merge.

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