Saturday, April 26, 2008

Dan Bejar's Mass Destruction

Because an entirely off-the-record comment I made to Carl Wilson last Friday has surfaced on his blog, I feel a need to elaborate. Not that I feel like Samantha Power exactly, but some further context is required.

Carl asked me if I was going to see Destroyer last week at Lee’s Palace, knowing that I was almost as big a fan as he is. I gave Carl a short, flippant answer. This is the long, verbose one.

Writing about Lou Reed, Lester Bangs once said that heroes exist only to disappoint you. Throughout Destroyer’s career, singer/songwriter Dan Bejar seems to have been on a mission to convince me that the rock’n’roll game is little more than a ruse, a farce, something to held in contempt. That he does this while making brilliant rock records is all the more confounding. Yet the deeper into his discography that we get, the less I find reasons to care. His mission, it seems, has been accomplished.

My favourite live memory of Destroyer comes from a set in Montreal on the Your Blues tour. During the song “Don’t Become the Thing You Hated,” Bejar’s vocal delivery drew out the first two words of the title in such a way that one woman beside me turned to her friend: ‘What did he say? Don’t be a cunt?’

For a man with a knack for dazzling wordplay, Bejar claims that his lyrics have no deeper meaning or connectivity. The guy who writes songs for one of the more over-the-top pop arrangers working today—Carl Newman’s New Pornographers—shows up at that band’s shows practically sneering at the audience and seemingly oblivious to the towering symphonies being created behind him. As for his own Destroyer shows, here’s a review I wrote for Eye Weekly about the 2006 Rubies tour (it has since been lost in that publication’s website redesign):

Destroyer’s Dan Bejar has spent his career projecting a carefree, some would argue ironic distance from rock grandeur—right down to the band name itself. It’s little wonder that the stenciled lettering on the bass cabinet proudly proclaimed, “College rock still sucks.”

Not that “college rock” doesn’t deserve it, as this textbook evening proved on many counts, like the earnest solo folkie opening act who should stick with open stage nights (Nedelle); leaving the campus radio hit (“Painter in Your Pocket”) off the set list; a limp, impress-me crowd debating the merits of Pitchfork at the bar.

Finally, we have the misunderstood melodicist being praised for his most “accessible” album yet, mostly by latecomers waiting to anoint something more conventional from a career contrarian. The lit crit vultures circle, trying to parse meaning from fleeting poetic fragments, while their confused dates wonder what the fuss is about.

This was Destroyer’s first Toronto show since Bejar decided to start playing the rock’n’roll game—little things like consistent touring, appearing on magazine covers, and performing with his aesthetically estranged cohorts in the New Pornographers. Yet no matter how lovely the new Destroyer’s Rubies is, like much of Bejar’s best work, it’s a slow burner. And outside of the warm and sympathetic production by longtime Vancouver midwives JC/DC, many of Destroyer’s strengths get dwarfed in a live situation—starting with the martyrdom of Ted Bois’s keyboard flourishes, and ending with Bejar’s own clipped caterwauling that only manages to mask the lyrics that everyone showed up to hear in the first place.

What’s ultimately frustrating, of course, is that Bejar can pull it together when he wants to, like his ahhh-mazing falsetto on “Rubies,” or the moody blues reinvention of “It’s Gonna Take an Airplane.” Yet as he’s openly admitted to anyone who asks, he hates rock clubs and doesn’t want to be there. You can’t accuse the man of dishonesty, but you’re better off in your bedroom with a set of headphones. That’s probably where Bejar wants you anyway, in “the elegance of an empty room.”

I’m not suggesting that Bejar has any kind of weird obligation to be as excited about performing music as his fans are to see him do it. I’ve been enthralled by plenty of artists for whom performance is low on their priority list. But the older I get, the less tolerance I have for live shows that seem like a tease or a con or an exercise in patience. At worst, it’s arrogance: ‘Oh, you really love my music? Let’s see if you’ll put up with me acting like none of this matters. And by the way, you’re an idiot for showing up.’

Despite the fact that he’s made a living off it for years now, I’m sure Bejar would argue that none of it does matter. When 2000's Thief and 2001's Streethawk were making critical waves, Bejar rarely played a town he wasn’t living in at the time (Vancouver, New York, Montreal). Toronto, of all places, could certainly wait. The first time I saw him play, I had to go to CMJ in New York City to see him at a Merge showcase. “The listeners of the world are on your side!” I heckled, quoting one of his lyrics. I really have no idea why I did that now.

Since then I’ve seen various Destroyer bands of varying qualities. The best one was perhaps the one that Merge assembled for him at the label’s 15th anniversary in Chapel Hill in the summer of 2004, consisting primarily of Merge office staff—including label had Mac McCaughan (Superchunk, Portastatic) on giddy guitar, who appeared to be living out a rock and roll fantasy on stage that a bored Bejar didn’t want any part of. No matter—the set was majestic. As, for that matter, was the time he played most of Streethawk in its entirety opening for the New Pornographers’ Twin Cinema tour on its Montreal stop.

I fell in love with Destroyer's music around the time of the 2000 album Thief. I say "around the time of" because it took me a while to warm up to Bejar's winsome whine and way with words, both lyrically and vocally. Once I did, however, I was entranced by his tentative embrace of rock and folk clich├ęs wrapped around lyrics that cast dispersions on the entire premise of the music industry itself. Bejar possessed the kind of distanced vitriol that one would expect from a more abrasive music maker, not one so obviously well steeped in the elements that make a great rock record.

As I (and others) wrote at the time, Bejar managed to combine the wordplay of 60s Dylan, the folkie/glam affectations of early 70s Bowie, the wit of 80s Morrissey and the obscurantism of 90s Malkmus. What's not for a record collector to love, other than to get gleefully lost in the meta-ness of it all?

2001's Streethawk: A Seduction sealed the deal: a perfect album that I still return to regularly, where the rock moves were ratcheted up and the tender moments rang true despite the distance one could still sense from Bejar's aloof delivery.

Since then, Bejar's bounced around a lot in my consciousness: the lazy This Night introduced him to a bigger audience after he signed to Merge. Your Blues polarized his fan base further, but I was one of the few at the time who loved it (I still do). The Frog Eyes version of Your Blues (heard on the Notorious Lightning EP) pummeled any beauty out of the originals. Destroyer's Rubies was alternately beautiful and meandering but ultimately a step backwards to This Night. His collaborative work in the band Swan Lake embraced the weirdness again, for the better (again, I was in the clear minority on that one).

Those are all musical impressions. Lyrically, Rubies was the first time I believe he started sinking into complete self-parody, and it started to effect the way I viewed the back catalogue as well. The more I immerse myself in the ongoing Destroyer discography, the more I think he’s just making fun of me and every other pretentious asshole who wants their music to “mean” something. At this point it’s almost as if he’s daring us to parse any kind of meaning at all from his lyrical barrage.

Bejar is not the only one, of course. Someone must still be buying Stephen Malkmus records.

Critics love writers who weave verbosity into pop songs, because they’re convinced it actually means something—even if it clearly doesn’t. Beck, Wu-Tang Clan, The Fiery Furnaces’ Matthew Friedberger—just because you give off the illusion of a self-contained absurdist world with self-referential signifiers doesn’t mean that there’s actually anything going on.

But in the case of each of those three artists, at least the act of going along for the ride can be fun—much more fun than the way someone like Elvis Costello or Bob Dylan makes it almost medicinal, daring you to write your grad thesis on it.

Bejar used to be fun, and occasionally still can be. But why would you ever bother being that verbose if you actually don’t have anything to say? What kind of a poet, other than a self-declared con artist, would claim that his choice of words is entirely arbitrary and devoid of intent?

I approached the new album, Trouble in Dreams, with trepidation. My recent reaction to Destroyer hasn’t been helped by the fact that the album closes with a chorus that says, “You’ve been wandering around/ you’ve been fucking around.”

These Trouble times contain some fine moments, but it mostly sounds like spinning wheels. This is no fault of his band, who also played on the two most laissez-faire Destroyer albums (This Night, Rubies). Likely informed by some serious time on the road, they’ve found their groove, with arrangements sounding less like they were conjured up in a single afternoon. Quite the contrary: they’re elaborate, often quite gorgeous, and in many cases the arrangements are better than the songs themselves. To the band’s credit, I’d much rather hear some of this material with Bejar out of the mix entirely: “Shooting Rockets,” “Plaza Trinidad,” “Foam Hands” and especially Ted Bois’s keyboard flourishes on “Leopard of Honor.”

Bejar himself comes through on “Introducing Angels,” “My Favourite Year” and “Libby’s First Sunrise,” all of which are all quite lovely. So there’s my typically Libran assessment: despite my profound disappointment with it, seven of the 11 songs on Trouble in Dreams are interesting enough for me not to give up on Destroyer entirely.

But you’d have to pay me to go see it live.

1 comment:

Jen Brown said...

Glad to find your writings here.

This was an especially thoughful piece about Bejar, and I agree to all but one criticism - that the artist's assertion of lack of meaning in their work somehow trumps the listener's experience of it.

Not to sound to precious or grad-schooly, but Roland Barthes "Death of the Author" essay is a good illustration of the idea that to assign too much (or any) authority for Meaning to the creator is to put a limit on the text that needn't be there. I think Bejar's lyrics are full of meaning, even if he claims it's all a sham.