Friday, August 08, 2014

Destroyer: of expectations

Destroyer: before (photo by Helen Spitzer)
Dan Bejar, the Vancouver enigma who records and performs as Destroyer, is not the kind of guy you invite to birthday parties. If you do, you certainly don’t expect him to wind up as star of the show. Yet that’s what happened at Merge Records’ 25thanniversary celebrations last week in Carrboro, N.C. The man who has spent his entire career making audiences uncomfortable somehow turned in the most memorable performance of a week that included shows by Neutral Milk Hotel, Bob Mould, Caribou and the label's raison d'etre, Superchunk. I’ve been a Destroyer fan for 15 years, and I never saw this coming.

He may not look the part, but Bejar is the bad-boy temptor in the archetypal teen romance: the entirely aloof guy with undeniable allure who couldn’t care less whether or not the female protagonist is pining for him. She thinks he’s fascinating and mysterious and talented. He says so many seemingly brilliant things she doesn’t understand. When she tells him all this, he shrugs and says, “Whatever.”

Bejar’s whole career is seemingly based on refusal. His earliest, commercially available recordings were deliberately obscurist: his voice inaudible, the audio quality so beyond terrible that it had to be intentional. His breakthrough albums, 2000’s Thief and 2001’s Streethawk: A Seduction, used the music industry as a metaphor for living in a compromised, corporate world. When a side project, the New Pornographers, became a commercial success, Bejar declined to tour with them; when he eventually did, he’d wander on stage for the handful of their songs he wrote, offer a perfunctory performance, and exit as soon as he was done.

Destroyer shows were not much different: he usually employed a guitar-heavy band that was louder than he was, an act of self-negation that defeated the purpose of him even being there. There was never any banter, never any indication that he considered a rock show anything more than a chore to be endured. Some of his recordings took a similar attitude. Others, of course, were brilliant, or else no one would even bother putting up with this shit. (Amazing, then, that I often end up defending Bejar to conservative rock fans who worship Bob Dylan—someone just as “lyrically obtuse and contemptuous of audience expectations.)

Even his sublime moments come with some squirming. On July 10, Bejar played a solo show at Toronto’s Massey Hall, a storied venue best known for Gordon Lightfoot’s annual week-long stint of gigs. Bejar was on a beauty-and-the-beast bill with Basia Bulat, a performer with a considerably sunnier disposition. As can be seen on film for the Live at Massey Hall series (UPDATE: now online), Bejar was singing better than ever, with none of his more exaggerated vocal inflections that veer into the comical. Songs that, on record, seem to be driven entirely by production and his players, revealed themselves to be far more melodic than suggested by the intertonal, speak-singing Bejar prefers.

Yet in between every song, he spent unusually long periods of time—even for him—crouching to sip his beverage and tune his guitar, offering precious little banter to break the tension (admittedly, much more than he would ever offer during a full-band set). Amidst Massey Hall’s impeccable acoustics, with a crowd unfamiliar with this strange character before them, the sound of shifting seats and clenched teeth was almost audible. (“I can’t walk away / you can’t walk away,” he sang on "Chinatown," practically taunting the seething newcomers.) Recall, if you will, that Neil Young and Crazy Horse put out Arc, an album consisting of between-song guitar feedback; were Bejar ever to do something similar, the album would consist entirely of awkward silences.

Cut to Carrboro, N.C., July 25, in front of a packed club of fans who have made pilgrimages from across the continent to celebrate an independent record label. These are people who consciously seek out cultural fringes. They’re naturally skeptical of performers who try too hard to please. These are Dan Bejar’s people.

After sets by the Mountain Goats (led by a songwriter whose lyrics are infinitely more interesting than his music) and Wye Oak (a Baltimore duo of considerable instrumental prowess, expertly juggling electronic sounds and ’90s guitar rock), Bejar takes the stage with his seven-piece band, including a saxophonist and a trumpeter who makes excellent use of an electronic effects box. It’s the band he assembled to play the smooth, almost Sade-ish left turn that was his unusually accessible 2011 album Kaputt.

Destroyer: after (photo by Helen Spitzer)
Tonight, however, the band has different ideas. They open with a new song, a driving, three-chord, glam-influenced rocker called "Dream Lover" that recalls Lou Reed’s more raucous moments—or at least the sound of pre-punk New York City in the dirty, decrepit ’70s. (Later on, the connection is made more explicit with another killer new song, called "Times Square.") The Kaputt material sounds much more muscular than it did when this band first started touring. Older songs ("European Oils," "Rubies") are turned inside out, and delivered with 10 times the intensity any live incarnation of Destroyer has ever managed. Bejar doesn’t play guitar all night. Instead, he stalks the stage, wielding a low-set microphone stand like a cane, rarely glancing at either the band or the audience, yet clearly in command of the maelstrom around him. During instrumental solos, he sometimes slouches in front of the drum set, appearing almost bored. But as the set gets progressively more intense, Bejar can’t help but enjoy himself. He acts like a cranky grandpa, somewhat infuriated but increasingly delighted by all these magical animated creatures making such a choreographed mess in his house. By the end of the set, he's practically dancing.

Back to the teen romance analogy: If you’re into the kind of sado-masochistic psychological game that involves falling for the bad boy, you’ll keep expecting him to conform to your expectations and secretly hoping he doesn’t, so that the game will continue. But maybe, just maybe, one night he’ll saunter right up to you and kiss you on the lips. It will be exhilarating, beyond thrilling, and you’ll spend every moment until your next meeting hoping it will happen again.

That’s what Dan Bejar did at Mergefest.

Of course, if were he ever to read this—a big “if,” of course, along with “if” he’d even care what anyone thought, least of all me—it might just inspire him to ditch the band and make yet another left turn into atonal sound poetry. Which would be entirely in character, Destroyer that he is.

My review of the rest of the fest is here.

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