“the Great books’ve been written. the Great sayings have all been said” Bob Dylan, from the liner notes to Bringing It All Back Home (1965) The idea that such a seminal artist as Dylan could feel, if only for a moment, discouraged by the weight of what had come before him proves both the above quote’s ultimate fallacy as well as its daunting pervasiveness amongst all those who would seek to create something new out of a grand, imposing tradition. More and more, it becomes harder to make rock music feel new and original without somehow referring to its own history and inviting comparisons to the Greats (Dylan, now, foremost among them).
In the world of indie rock today, it is surprisingly easy to identify exactly which artists from the past any current artist is emulating. And while the familiar is necessary to bring about the discovery of the strange, one is continually hard pressed to find talent that eclipses the familiar.
Enter Dan Bejar of rock outfit Destroyer, a man who seemingly refuses to make any distinctions between himself and his antecedents. It is this quality that makes Bejar perhaps the most successful (artistically speaking) contemporary songwriter around. Musically, Destroyer does not set out to invent anything new, at least not without a little collaboration from the past. Rather, Bejar buries his listeners in references to everything from obscure indie rock bands to ’70s AM radio, to literature and world history, and of course, to himself. Against this barrage of images delivered through Bejar’s playfully maniacal vocal style, even the most studious music geek’s ability to discern what has been borrowed and what has been created is challenged and teased. Within a shroud of labyrinthine references lies Destroyer’s genius and–yes–its originality.
“Have I told you lately that I love you?/ Did I fail to mention there’s a sword hanging above you?”
–Dan Bejar, from “A Dangerous Woman up to a Point” (Destroyer’s Rubies, 2006)
Nowhere is this technique of appropriation more apparent than on Destroyer’s Rubies, the seventh official release for Bejar. The least defensive record in the Destroyer catalogue, Bejar is at his most confident here, both in delivery and songwriting.
Album opener “Rubies” is a nine-minute epic that commands attention, channeling the bombastic climaxes of 2004’s Your Blues (sans its use of MIDIs, of course) and the Malkmusian leads of 2002’s This Night. Phrases are repeated and past album titles are name-checked again and again, even more so than usual for Bejar. The shuffling rhythms of “Rubies” and “Your Blood” provide an unexpected but welcome stylistic shift from previous, more rock-oriented arrangements, as does the way all other instruments drop out at the end of “Rubies,” leaving only what sounds like a rough demo of Bejar, strumming and summing everything up at last with his infamous, ubiquitous “ah-da-da”s.
The record’s arrangements are even-handed, pared down considerably from Your Blues. Fans of Streethawk: A Seduction will be pleased to note the return of that perfect pop album’s Hunky Dory-like piano (see “Priest’s Knees” and “European Oils”). The aforementioned Malkmus-channeling lead guitars are also abundant, providing a subtle reference point (the choice of instrumentation too serves Bejar’s purposes) to the slack-assed glory of early ’90s Pavement. So many songwriters were influenced by that seminal indie band, but few have managed to do what Bejar has–that is, to somehow cultivate a voice that is unique but also draws heavily on the formative influence of Pavement’s ironic wit and angular chops. Because Rubies contains so many lyrical and sonic themes introduced on previous albums, as well as more references to Destroyer’s own past than ever before, this may well be the most characteristic Destroyer album to date.
In fact, some music reviewers have called Rubies an exercise in self-parody. But anyone who truly listens to these songs and who is not pondering being indie rock journalism’s newest tastemaker can tell you Bejar has not slacked in the least in his composition. The lyrics on Rubies, in particular, are even more intricate than those of any preceding Destroyer record.
Bejar is at his least apologetic in these new songs (although at one point he does offer some consolation to the widows of asshole music reviewers), and he exudes a kind of confidence that seems to obliterate slow, cranky criticism. Simultaneously, with the release of Rubies, Bejar has let down all remaining guard, and revels without the slightest pause in the Dionysian ecstasy that characterizes his singing.
Rumors now swirl that this is the record that will bring Destroyer to the fringes of the mainstream. This would seem to be the case, though this may have less to do with the record itself (Streethawk is arguably the most accessible) and more with the timing and Bejar’s ability to build a devoted fan base slowly but surely.
Now, it’s finally his time. He has joined the ranks of those whom the aspiring will emulate. And he deserves it more than any other contemporary songwriter active in this wealthy and crooked underground.
B.R. Bickford leads the Chapel Hill band The Strugglers, has toured in Europe with Destroyer, and envies Bejar’s bristle.