Wednesday, March 1, 2006 10:20 pm
Reaching beyond his inner geek
Never before has a Destroyer album sounded so accessible
Destroyer leader Daniel Bejar is the perfect pinup boy for a small but insanely devoted faction of rock critics, music bloggers, grad-school dropouts, and die-hard potheads. Self-referential and unapologetically literate, Bejar’s lyrics bring out our inner geeks, inspiring record reviews-cum-dissertations larded with academic hokum. Before you can say “Jacques Derrida” or even load up the one-hitter, an innocent little record review can metastasize into a dreary treatise on intertextuality, irony, and dialogic discourse. Once you start paying attention to the words — the recurrent metaphors, the involutions and allusions, the characteristic rhetorical tics — it’s easy to forget that this is rock & roll, dude, not an MLA colloquium. That’s too bad, because Destroyer’s Rubies, the seventh and best Destroyer album, is more than a collection of brainy lyrics. For the first time, Destroyer seems like an actual band, not just a backdrop for the frontman’s recondite monologues. It’s hard to say whether Bejar, the only permanent member of Destroyer since its inception in 1995, will settle permanently on the current lineup — Fisher Rose on vibraphone and trumpet, Scott Morgan on drums and baritone sax, Tim Loewen on bass, Ted Bois on keyboards, and Nicolas Bragg on second guitar — but a more compatible bunch of cohorts is hard to imagine. Less noisy and shambolic than Frog Eyes, which backed Bejar on last year’s EP Notorious Lightning and Other Works, these musicians demonstrate a preternatural ability to follow the singer’s ramshackle melodies and famously mannered phrasing, grounding his eccentricities in established rock traditions without compromising his signature weirdness. In many ways, Rubies is a quintessential Destroyer album, harking back to the apocalyptic tumult of 2002’s underrated This Night and the anxious slop-pop of 2001’s reputation-making Streethawk: A Seduction. It lacks the studiously hollow formalism of 2004’s Your Blues, a brilliant but frigid exercise in MIDI orchestration, and might, to some novelty addicts, sound like a step backward. Indeed, it’s the most accessible Destroyer album yet, the one most likely to convert listeners who would rather rock out than pore over a lyric booklet. Alternating between strangled-peacock yelps and beatnik howls, a punk-rocker’s snarl and a cabaret chanteur’s croon, Bejar’s singing will always be an acquired taste, but it sounds more assured than ever, perhaps because his sidemen give him plenty of space. There’s something unspeakably moving in the way that the music suddenly drops out right before the bridge in “A Dangerous Woman Up to a Point,” and when the band locks in again, with a delirious surge of Mott the Hoople-ish piano, it’s downright ephiphanic. Never before has a Destroyer album sounded so varied in its arrangements and instrumentations. With its jaunty guitar hooks, skipping drum beat, and Bejar’s blatant Dylanisms, “Your Blood” evokes the ragged majesty of Blonde on Blonde.“Sick Priest Learns to Last Forever” fades in and out, an aural acid trip comprising Crazy Horse guitars, languid sax fills, and demented upper-register piano runs; “3000 Flowers,” the CD’s most driving cut, combines squalling guitar figures with walloping drums and oddly processed, slightly out-of-synch double-tracked vocals. The lyrics still provide plenty of grist for stoner semioticians, of course. Few writers alive could reference Ezra Pound, Van Morrison, and Aeschylus on a single album or deliver a couplet such as “Those who love Zeppelin will soon betray Floyd/I cast off these couplets in honor of the void” with such casual panache. Whether he’s la-da-da-ing like a drunken camp counselor or spitting out sardonic invective about the American underground, Bejar still sounds like the smartest man in indie rock; the difference is that he’s finally found a way to bring his meta-epics to people who aren’t quite sure what “meta” means.