David Bowie had his Berlin trilogy. Neil Young had his crazy Geffen eighties. In 2002, Dan Bejar was in his Spain period, hiding out from the pressures of his other band, the New Pornographers, whose 2000 debut Mass Romantic had garnered international acclaim. Up until that point, Bejar had released contemplative, if verbose, folk-rock as Destroyer. But with indie rock royalties in tow, Bejar felt comfortable absconding to the Iberian Peninsula, stretching out a bit and, in his words, “just doing whatever the fuck I wanted.” He was “following [his] muse,” he later told Spin, and apparently, his muse led him to a sprawling, 70-minute album about a disenchanted evening.
This Night, released 20 years ago this Saturday, was a 15-song last call for a certain kind of rock ‘n’ roll purist and a crossroads for Destroyer. Bejar tasted fame and found it to be bittersweet. His previous record, 2001’s Streethawk: A Seduction, was praised for its bright guitar melodies. But Bejar, never one to make the same album twice, rebounded with loose, jangly arrangements and gauzier vocals for his follow-up. The opening title track hints, as much as any of Bejar’s indecipherable poetry, at the disillusionment born from years of watching indie rock stardom from the outside:
They led us on
They said it would be yours
Tear down the borders, stop patrolling the shores
Let us in
From the lips of a Canadian songwriter who fled North America just before the War On Terror, it’s easy to read this as a literal indictment of Bush-era immigration policy. But taken with the rest of the song’s narrative — a failed opera, a decade in Vancouver’s gritty Eastside, tamed wildcats — the lyrics read like an attack on cultural gatekeepers and a weary promise to keep creating art outside of their airtight castle walls. It’s a fitting introduction to an album that takes a leisurely, meandering pace through Bejar’s neuroses, one that could care less about winning over skeptics.
More than any previous Destroyer record, This Night is brilliantly alive. Where Thief and City Of Daughters sketched out Bejar’s philosophy over somnambulant piano and padded drums, his fifth record is propelled forward, constantly in momentum. Whether it’s the riffs on “Here Comes The Night,” slightly off-balance like a toddler gleefully running down a hill, or the drumroll that opens “Modern Painters,” feverishly outpacing a gentle acoustic guitar, the instrumentation on This Night is dynamic and freewheeling. Bejar’s charmingly aimless non sequiturs, ironically, serve as a steadying counterbalance. It sounds the way a night of debauchery feels—messy, ill-advised, and exuberant.
The album’s chaotic energy is in large part due to guitarist Nic Bragg, who joined Bejar for the first time for This Night. As Bejar tells it, Bragg works like him—in creative bursts, sending maddeningly dense recordings to their producer to be rearranged into a coherent final product. On songs like “Hey Snow White,” Bragg’s tendency towards triumphant noise takes a hold of the song, lifting Bejar’s reassurances that “it’s gonna be alright” into the stratosphere with his searing guitar, punctuated with feedback, played with the enthusiasm of a teenager learning “Stairway To Heaven.” With Bragg, Bejar built out the almost inadvisably confident glam rock that made This Night both a critically divisive release and a harbinger of Destroyer to come. Bragg would become one of Bejar’s most consistent collaborators, providing an added layer of bravado and entropy to his songs on Kaputt, Poison Season, Have We Met, and Labyrinthitis.
This was Bejar’s first record on Merge, and it’s possible to read the entire lyric sheet as a screed against the indie rock machine towards which he felt inexorably pulled. There’s a throughline of nostalgic disappointment, rallying cries for the has-beens and never weres: Bejar mourns failed mascots and burst dams on “This Night”; he’s digging poetry a grave on “Holly Going Lightly”; the playhouse in his universe is staging a play called Comeback on “Crystal Country.” And then there’s the literal references to the rock gods of the past half-century on “The Chosen Few”: Sonic Youth and their “silver rocket” and the Velvet Underground’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” When he sings “Rock ‘n’ roll’s not through” on “Makin’ Angels,” he might as well be singing as a reassurance to himself. It was a bit of a middle finger to the cachet of his newfound success; “I don’t know if there were parades in the streets of Chapel Hill on that day,” Bejar said later about sending This Night to his new label.
Critics were unkind to the record — Pitchfork called it “a jumbled, self-indulgent mess.” But it’s that freewheeling, ramshackle verve that endures 20 years after This Night’s release. Destroyer’s self-indulgence would go in and out of public favor — what is the coked-out Steely Dan madness of Kaputt if not one man’s middle aged psychosis — but the independent streak he established on these 15 songs set the tone for the path Bejar carved moving forward. Perhaps that’s why he called it his favorite Destroyer record in 2006. But even if the records in its wake were forever molded by This Night, it still holds a special intimacy that has since been supplanted by synthesizers and drum machines. “The Night Moves,” the rambling closer of This Night, sounds like the drunken walk home after a long night out. There’s finger snapping, singing that treats the beat like a suggestion, and most importantly, a group chant at the end — “Aye, aye, aye” — that sounds like beer sloshing out of a stein. It’s joyous, it’s melancholic, it’s closing time at the Bejar Inn.