by carl wilson

Destroyer Again: "There's No Salt to Be Passed"

I apologize to Michael Barclay for quoting him out of context, but some good hard thinking came out of it, so let's continue the ping-pong at least another round.

One point. Michael says: "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 feeling is that as of Your Blues, and certainly with Trouble in Dreams, it became more a growing case of "mission abandoned."

[... continue? ...]

Savaging rock just doesn't propel the songs anymore; though it still pops up here and there on Destroyer's Rubies, it's a side issue, as is the angry-young-man aspect in general. "I've been living in America in churches of greed," Dan sings on the new album's Dark Leaves Form a Thread: "It's sick! No, it's cool." The theme of complicity lingers, in a more tragic, personalized register, but with a maturity that is "perfectly at home with this dread."

It's something Destroyer's been arching towards all along, I think - just as the "arrogant" avoidance of direct contact with the audience in live shows had more to do with wanting to offer something otherly-sincere to cliched rock-show behaviour but finding, until recently, his only alternative was awkward discomfort. Similarly, the Bejarian attack mode is often more reactionary/defensive than other aspects of the writing (though redeemed by its sense of humour), and I think it's gradually receding.

It still seems odd to say Destroyer has convinced you that rock's a farce and so you've lost interest in him unless you've actually lost interest in all other rock, too. I suppose you could argue that it's hypocrisy or something, but as I argued in my previous post I think the hypocrisy is precisely the point: Destroyer is an ongoing drama about a guy struggling with his purist urges and ambitions, about falling from grace and then wondering if the place you've fallen is actually more full of grace than was your previous lofty perch.

Michael also says: "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. ... 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 find Michael's example, the lines "you've been wandering around/ you've been fucking around," weird (what is arbitrary and meaningless about those words? they could have been written by Paul Westerberg), but I realize that's how a lot of people react to Dan's lyrics and what he's said about them. Still, asking a writer to explain what they've written seems to me either to suggest that they've failed in writing it - that it isn't sufficent unto itself - or that the reader/listener isn't willing to bring their own interpretive and emotional apparatus to bear on it, to cooperate in the making of meaning.

It's a big misunderstanding to think the claim that lines of verse have no paraphrasable meaning - no sense that can be restated in other words without abandoning their precision and their multiple layers of meaning - implies that they are "arbitrary and devoid of intent."

Dan probably has sewn confusion with some of his sloppier answers to interview questions, but he's never been more clear on that score than in this discussion with Grayson Currin of North Carolina's Independent Weekly. The whole thing (which includes chat about the origins of songs like "Foam Hands" and "The State" - "I'm pretty sure that song is about political torture in some ways, and in other ways, it's just about a girl") is worth reading, but particularly this passage:

Q. Are there times when you discover what may be a new meaning for a song years after you've written it?

A. I guess it's possible, but usually I do that with the overall, as in, "What was I trying to get it, making that record sound the way it did?" As far as writing goes, I don't really have the same view of meaning as maybe some people do. ... [Every] single line in every single song means exactly what it says when it says it. That's how I generate meaning, just by trying to find the perfect word to follow the perfect word that came before it so that the next perfect word... I'm not saying that Destroyer songs are perfect, but I have this idea in my head of what ideal musical writing sounds like. I just try to get close to it.

As far as what the song is about, [it's not] I say one thing but really it's about my dog that went missing. Or I say "Blue flower, blue flame," but what I'm really talking about is the river behind my house. That shit doesn't exist. Meaning to me is whatever abundance of emotion I can create by saying something.

Q: So you don't mean a phrase like "blue flower, blue flame" to be any bigger than its exact meaning?

A: No, I don't. There's no code. There's no hidden veil. There's nothing behind the curtain of these words. It's just like notes, you know? I feel like the languages have to be cut some slack, just like the melody or a really awesome drum fill or a swell of strings, it kind of means the same things as those words mean. It's hard to get your head around that, I guess, because we generally try to communicate ideas and concepts with words. When we say "Pass the salt," we want someone to give us salt. When you're making art, there's no salt to be passed. It's just a mystery, right? It's just like "pass me..." - "create a mystery for me."

I think that's what art is. It's this thing that gets made, and you don't know exactly why, but it just blows you away. When I read something and I really like it, I just have to put the book down for a second or a minute. It's the same sensation as someone knocking you over. You have to kind of brush yourself off and make sure that what happened happened. Maybe that's just me. Maybe that's not normal.

Read More | General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, April 28 at 3:41 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (14)



I humbly accept your "Blue Flower" defense. I wish I felt engaged enough with the song to venture that deep into it.
But I do want to say that I actually do like "Libby's First Sunrise" quite a bit, and I like how it can be read many ways: someone coming out of addiction, someone grappling with new parenthood, someone starting the rest of their life. The line in question that we've been discussing just coincidentally plays into my argument, independent of the context of the song itself.
Oh, context. It's such a bitch.

Posted by barclay on April 30, 2008 8:13 AM



Hi Michael, thanks for replying.

I'll defend to the death your right not to be entertained by what doesn't entertain you, of course. The thing about the vocal style and the red herrings to me is that I find them really funny - it's just a joke I don't happen to get tired of, which probably just means that Destroyer music hits the wires of my personality right where the conductivity is highest. I can certainly see the novelty wearing off, or some versions of the sensibility moving you and others not.

And it's interesting to me that you say that you actually *do* feel disillusioned with rock. (I feel disillusioned with it on Mondays, Wednesdays and Sundays, and disillusioned with hip-hop on Tuesdays, Fridays and Thursdays. On Saturdays I am only disillusioned with introspective singer-songwriters.)

I don't hear "you were fucking around" as a confession of Dan's artistic methods, though - to me that song is about sunrise seen on the borderline between a drunk and a hangover, the sunrise as indictment, a "first/last day of the rest of your life" situation. But it's useful to your argument!

I've been annoyed by the use of "woman by another name" verse, because it implies precisely the reviewers' insistence that the singer *should* tell us what he means by that - and obviously there's probably a tweaking going on there. But more than that, because it seems rich in meaning to me - first of all, I'm intrigued by its relationship to what I think of as the Shakespeare/Stein sequence ("a rose by any other name would smell as sweet" vs "a rose is a rose") and the way it seems almost to bring Stein herself into the argument - a question about the gender politics of language, and this song does seem to me to have a gender-dynamic subtext, within which there's the depressive-petulant male singer and the woman who's "in it for a good time" and whose head is so full of "stuff" that "a penny for your thoughts was never enough." So the withheld explanation seems in keeping with an atmosphere of personal conflict. ("Blue flower" and "blue flame," eg., both being the kind of poetic language a male writer might use as "another name" for a woman, thereby perhaps erasing her.)

There's some of that lengthy-paraphrase stuff John was bigging up earlier in this thread.

None of which justifies the song if you don't like it. But because Destroyer is always read (and I admit my part in establishing this ground) as making more aesthetic arguments than emotional ones, the line is just taken as a flip-off. I don't think it is.

That said, the "late Twin Peaks" scowl in response to Dan's argument about mystery seems like a fair one.

Posted by zoilus on April 29, 2008 8:45 PM



It's true, Carl--I have lost interest in most other rock as well as Destroyer. But it's not at all his move away from "rock" into either synths or Sunday afternoon pleasantries that bothers me about the new material. Nor, for that matter, do I care whether or not he's continuing to be all meta and using music industry metaphors to make his point (if there is one). The reason I don't like new Destroyer records has everything to do with his approach to lyrics in general, and often his vocals as well.

I'm not expecting him to write lyrics that I "understand." I don't really expect that of any lyricist, because I agree with Bejar when he says that vocals and use of lyrics are no different than choosing musical notes or arrangements. That's why I listen to music in foreign languages I don't understand; that's why I love what Mike Patton or Tyondai Braxton do.

What bothers me is affecting an air of importance about lyrics that he himself admits don't mean anything. I'm sure he doesn't think he's being self-important, but his vocal delivery seems purposely calculated that way. I'd rather he just la-la-la than slap me with one red herring after another.

I do like lyricists who "create mysteries for me." But Bejar at this point is like, I don't know, the last couple of seasons of X-Files or later Twin Peaks episodes, or (from what I hear) recent Lost. The mystery just seems to be tripping over itself and no matter how intrigued I was at the outset, I can't bring myself to care anymore.

As for the "you've been wandering around/ you've been fucking around" line, I'm not at all suggesting it's arbitrary. Quite the opposite: everytime I hear it, it rings literally true to me in ways that I actually don't want it to.

People who like beating up on Destroyer (and I'm not one of them) like to quote a line like this new one: "A woman by another name is not a woman/ I'll tell you what I mean by that/ Maybe not in second flat/ maybe not today."

I don't know, that seems about one self-referential step away from my all-time favourite rock vagary, courtesy of Triumph: "Someone is out there someone waiting for someone."

In both cases, toying with a cliche doesn't draw me any closer to caring what it is they're talking about, and no matter how clever the former example is trying to be, it rings just as hollow. I guess, you would argue, that's the point.

By the way, you didn't quote me out of context at all. I just felt a need to elaborate, because it's something that I've been stewing on for a while.

Posted by barclay on April 29, 2008 7:53 PM




You've got a point. I'd say that the romantic-diction thing is evidence of the "mission abandoned" situation I described post-Your Blues: Destroyer was founded on explicit rules designed to eliminate romantic language and those rules, once slackened, haven't necessary been supplanted by anything... The project might actually be self-critical at this point (which might be what Michael was feeling in re "self parody"); there's a more vulnerable emotionality going on with both This Night and Trouble in Dreams that I might take as a more humanist counterpoint to DB's own earlier anti-humanism. (Destroyer's Rubies less so, not sure why.)

... Which may indicate lowered stakes or might just be transitional to something else?

Posted by zoilus on April 29, 2008 7:19 PM



Bob Merrill, lyricist of "Funny Girl" ("People, people who need people, are the luckiest people in the world"), said -- and I'll have to *paraphrase*, not having the source handy -- "I love cliches. I write 'em down every chance I get."

Some writer -- was it Martin Amis? -- wrote a book called "The War Against Cliche" a few years back, and from the reviews I read, I never got the indication that he was aware that using "war" in this metaphorical sense was a really lame, really weak cliche. ("Lame" and "weak" are themselves lame, weak cliches here; not that there's anything wrong with that.)

A line from one of my songs, from the early '90s:

"I believe in love, I believe in cliches."

Posted by john on April 29, 2008 12:58 PM



No, I'm not kidding. But maybe I'm not using the term cliche precisely. I just mean, when a lyric is talking about something in terms I am familiar with, terms that have been used before, then to me they are not treading new ground. In the context of a lyric, that can get boring quickly, and feel like a cliche.

Posted by martin on April 29, 2008 12:21 PM



Hey, Martin, RE: "When I grasp a writer's meaning right away, I know he is using cliches." You're kidding, right?

Posted by Jody on April 29, 2008 10:55 AM



Hey, Martin, RE: "When I grasp a writer's meaning right away, I know he is using cliches." You're kidding, right?

Posted by Jody on April 29, 2008 10:55 AM



Lyrics have a kind of advantage over formal poetry in that the writer is allowed (to my mind anyway) to go further out on a limb, to attempt to find meaning and possibly fail, but take us somewhere interesting in the meantime.

When I grasp a writer's meaning right away, I know he is using cliches. When he is obviously taking chances, I am interested and paying attention. Lyrics on a page can be music too. For me good lyrics are not fully understandable, instead they resonate. If they are completely comprehensible they are not poetry.

If you read the lyrics carefully and still think they are bullshit then for you they are bullshit and no hard feelings. Pop music is a perfectly disposable medium in which one man's treasure can be happily be another man's junk.

Posted by martin on April 28, 2008 9:27 PM



"Paraphrase" is the wrong word, you're right, Carl, but for the wrong reason. Dictionary doesn't impose a length-limit on the restatement that a paraphrase effects, though, I'm sure you're right, common usage implies it. It's the wrong word because in dense, allusive language, the "meaning" as explained in paraphrase is fundamentally different than the experience that the author intends the original text to provide. The "statement of intent" can explain *why* a writer chose her or his words, and point to what the allusions and associations were intended to be. If Bejar has lines that take more than a paragraph to "explain," good for him! And -- the umbrage of critics are a funny thing indeed.

My aesthetic mantra of late: The aesthetic experience includes its meaning(s) but encompasses a lot more. Ellipticalist writing is a case in point.

Posted by john on April 28, 2008 9:27 PM



Cool, but for me it's more that I don't get his growing obsession with ostentatiously clumsy high Romantic diction. I can justify this as an intellectual project (both criticizing a certain discourse and examining its expressive\constructive capacities) but I thought he did an awesome job exploring the middle grounds between effective and symptomatic language from City Of Daughter to Your Blues, and the latest thing of working only with the very weakest of raw aesthetic materials doesn't work as well.

Posted by peli grietzer on April 28, 2008 8:07 PM



I agree that in principle, John, the writer should be *able* to discuss the meaning of their writing (as Dan does in that interview to a degree that's unusual in his press) - but I think there's something strange about the way journalists, critics and even fans often *expect* them to be willing to do so, as if the lack of explanation were somehow accidental - if they wanted the song to be easily interpreted then they'd have made it easily interpreted, no? If the artist wants the listener/reader to have to supply their own interpretations, that's often very evident in their style, so why take umbrage when that's the tack they take?

It's this strange publicity-driven situation in which artists are expected to do the job of offering their own self-criticism - starting with the "artist's statement" - which I think is another job altogether.

Btw, to me "paraphrasable" doesn't mean, "you can write a long essay about what those two lines might be saying," it means, "you can summarize what it means in more or less two other lines, maybe four."

Posted by zoilus on April 28, 2008 7:04 PM



"to cooperate in the making of meaning" with the verbal-ist is a po-mo shibboleth that many reader/listeners don't find textually pleasurable.

Nobody asks, "For fuck's sake, what does 'Fa la la la la' have to do with decking the halls? What does 'Fa la la la la la la la la' even *mean*?"

I'm not saying an ellipticalist writer is wrong to ellipticalate. Just saying, there's nothing wrong with the auditor's refusal to cooperate either.

I agree that ellipticalist writing can be unarbitrarily intentional; but if so, it should be paraphrasable too -- maybe at great length, but paraphrasable. If a writer intends many things, she or he should be able to say what those intentions are. Whether they want to or not is another question. Artists are free to be priests of Apollo too.

Viva the Cocteau Twins!

Posted by john on April 28, 2008 6:41 PM



Thanks for pointing out this interview, Carl. By the way, which "two or three songs" would you remove from Trouble In Dreams?

Posted by dtl on April 28, 2008 6:08 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson