For some listeners, Destroyer’s notoriously difficult lyrics and mercurial moods from album to album make their music hard to like. For others, that difficulty presents an enthralling challenge. Destroyer’s Rubies is the latest move in the battle of wits between lyrical mastermind Dan Bejar and an audience who either loves or hates him for his music’s complexity.
It’s also difficult to contextualize Destroyer’s Bejar without mentioning two of his closest musical touchstones, Bob Dylan and David Bowie. It’s counterintuitive as well: With the exception of his hunky-dory vocal stylings, Bejar doesn’t really “sound” like them. The fact that the artists who serve as his most apt and apparent comparisons are musical iconoclasts both boasting a history of chameleonic shifts in identity and tone throughout their careers, speaks to the expansiveness of Bejar’s vision and the intricate, enthralling music through which it’s carried out.
These days, when three-qualifier genre classifications are created to suit new acts and the inevitable scenes that spring up around them, Destroyer’s sprawling, lyrically dense brand of bluesy folk rock defies relation to even the most specific genre-slicing. Too pop-driven to be art-rock; too loose and mercurial to bear much relation to the A.C. Newman-treated songs Bejar still contributes to erstwhile side project The New Pornographers.
Destroyer’s Rubies, Bejar’s latest, finds him at what sounds like an ideological and musical turning point. After a successful foray into synthesized yet emotionally evocative sounds on 2004’s dramatic epic Your Blues, Bejar reworked six of Blues’s tracks with twitchy howl-rockers and fellow British Columbians Frog Eyes to create Notorious Lightening and Other Works. Though he sticks with the JC/DC production team from album to album, Bejar has admitted he’s quite susceptible to the stylistic influences of whatever musicians he plays with. Here, he’s working in the striding, poetic-rock style more characteristic of his pre-Blues period.
No doubt in part thanks to all the Bowie parallels, Destroyer’s work has been awkwardly squeezed into the “glam” category. But it’s not the genre’s typical trappings – like glitzy production or excessive ego-stroking – that create the tenuous connection to Bejar: It’s the unabashed scope of his lyrical references, which pull from sources as specific as his back catalogue (numerous thematic references to the Your Blues concept establish the mood of the first half of Rubies) and even previous tracks on the same album.
Lyrically, Bejar expresses the same freakish bravado that could be implied with a rhinestone-studded bodysuit, all underscored with far-off, clattering percussion and heart-pounding acoustic strumming. And on Rubies, Bejar maximizes the potential of his pipes, spewing conviction through crackling, lilting, nasal syllables. He leans hard on parts of phrases in a way that hasn’t imbued such meaning to free, proclamatory lyrics since a certain wild-haired, painted-faced visionary spewed secrets from the stage of the Rolling Thunder Revue.
Musical references, imagined characters and snippets of their imagined soliloquies, and all the other free-associative cultural detritus that inhabits Bejar’s straightforward yet poetic ideas interwine to create some of the densest lyrical webs listeners have ever had the geeked-out joy (or futile task) of dissecting.
Before shifting into gentler melodies and barely breathed lines lifted from Your Blues, opener “Rubies” really clamors to life at the end of what would be the final couplet of its first full stanza, commanded in Bejar’s most prophetic tone: “I wave to them in a modern way / And increase my stay at the dock of the bay.” On the last word, the gorgeously hopeful ascending scale that’s the melodic basis for the song strikes in the form of thick, fuzzy guitar.
Throughout the album, there are shifts to quieter, cooler moods (“Painter in Your Pocket”) and even a stylistic exercise in Pavement-esque one-offs (the joyful, slightly crazy “3,000 Flowers”). Some songs stretch a little long in the connecting material between sections, but the album’s building blocks are chiefly like scenes in a play, showing thematic and sonic progression throughout the whole.
After sprinkling the album with references both remote and a little solipsistic, Bejar announces, over the pounding piano of the “Idiot Wind”-esque “A Dangerous Woman Up to a Point,” “Those who love Zeppelin will soon betray Floyd / I cast off these couplets in honor of the void.” After a decade of albums, Destroyer’s Rubies sounds like a culmination of some of the best of Bejar’s experimentations.
So far, Bejar’s trajectory has been steadily rising, and, if what he says about his influences is true, he’ll be working with more foreign-sounding, far-left musicians who’ll help cultivate the kind of music to best express the achievement and complexity behind his lyrics.
Rubies is a fantastic work, especially for those willing to start what will become a long relationship with an album with nuanced effects that can be frustrating to interpret. Conceptually and musically, Destroyer is poised for an even more dramatic ascension.
Rating:Four stars out of five