Monday, September 15, 2008

Destroyer. This Night (Merge, 2002)

"Oh, you should have been a clerk/ You should have stayed a stranger/ You should have just done the work/ But it's too late now/ School's out."

Dan Bejar sounds like a total fruitcake. His voice has a high-pitched cracked wizard/weird elf tenor to it, and his lyrics are pulled from the "what the f*ck are you talking about?" box. That said, the songs he contributes to the New Pornographers are consistently my favorites off those records, especially "Jackie" and "Execution Day" from Mass Romantic, "Testament to Youth in Verse" from Electric Version, and "Streets of Fire" from Twin Cinema. Those tunes manage to place Bejar's singular batshit vision into the New Pornographers' polished power-pop context, and the end result is pure magic.

But where the New Pornographers (and especially that band's key player, AC Newman) serve to reign in Bejar and temper his more eccentric/indulgent tendencies with tight verse-chorus-verse structures and razor sharp hooks, Bejar is on his own in Destroyer. He's running the show here, and so things tend to get pretty weird pretty quick. I mean, it's guitar rock, and there's no sound-collage/ambient/noise core crap or anything, but Destroyer songs meander and mosey, and they get where they get when they get there. Since 1996, Bejar has used Destroyer to channel his unique strain of expansive psychedelic indie pop, and the results are always interesting, sometimes frustrating, and often completely kick-ass.

2002's This Night is kick-ass, and is by far my favorite Destroyer album. This Night's songs are relatively tight and focused for Destroyer, reminding me a lot more of Bejar's New Pornographers output than the tracks on the other Destroyer records I've heard. Take album opener "This Night," which dresses the verses in a few jaggedly jangled chords and some tinkling piano keys before bursting into a majestic rouser of a chorus. "Here Comes the Night" is a stunner, its serpentine riffs and chugging rhythms occasionally making space for what sounds like a melodica. "Trembling Peacock" is a stately stumbling beauty, gently plucked notes and weeping strings mapping out a delicately breathtaking melody, while "Students Carve Hearts Out of Coal" has a nice jazzy, late night feel to it, with just enough reverb on the guitar and a warm organ line underneath. "Goddess of Drought" is a charming acoustic campfire sing-along where every camper is Dan Bejar.

Bejar's guitar playing on these songs, like pretty much everywhere else on this record, is strictly impressive: he's got an intuitive, ragged style, and it all sounds great without sounding exactly right. It's not guitar heroics, it's guitar foolhardiness, and it's pretty thrilling.

Lyrically, good luck. You can parse through this stuff if you want, but I wouldn't spend too much time with it. The words fit the music, not the other way around. Bejar may be trying to convey some messages or themes here, and they occasionally surface before plunging back into the depths of willful obfuscation, but Destroyer isn't a band too concerned with getting you to figure them out. Basically, the lyrics, like the melodies and song patterns, are all over the place. The fun is in trying to pin them down and never really being able to. "Hey, Snow White, it's gonna be alright/ How can you win some?/ When the Company goes public/ You've got to learn to love what you own," cries Bejar on "Hey, Snow White." Hey, I hear you, man. And uh, no, I don't have any change. Sorry.

Every Destroyer record is an adventure, and like many adventures, some of them end badly. Not This Night. Here you'll find in bulk the stuff that makes Destroyer great: headcase solos, leftfield song structures and progressions, and moonman lyrics. But unlike many Destroyer albums, This Night doesn't skimp on catchy, and provides a perfect blend of Destroyer Bejar and New Pornographers Bejar. Two great tastes, one great album.