by carl wilson

Destroyer's Yves Klein Blues

"Feel so suicidal, even hate my rock and roll," sang John Lennon on the Beatles' Yer Blues. But on his own Your Blues, Destroyer's Dan Bejar feels free to hate his rock-and-roll without any urge to self-destruction. He just kisses it off and moves on.

There were several reasons I didn't review Your Blues in the newspaper.* At the release date, I was still, after a month of listening, trying to figure it out. As a longtime friend and champion of Dan - sometime New Pornographer, all-the-time Vancouver bard of Canadian self-cancellation transformed into Spanish-tinged quixotic crusade - I felt a responsibility I never normally feel to get the interpretation right. Especially when he'd done something this substantial, this undiscountable.

The existence of this post is a white flag I am waving to say that I have given up trying. But that also means I succeeded, because this music is calibrated exactly to force that surrender. [...]

Right now, maybe more than ever, music and the other arts are indicating no sort of collective purpose or direction. Is this a sign of weakness or health? Your Blues marks the point when Dan, who has been consumed by such dilemmas as much as anyone, decides to call it an opportunity, and seize it. He takes it, in fact, to the hilt, but in tangents so difficult to track or decipher that we're left dazed in our search for where exactly that hilt may be located. That is, the kind of "good" it manages to be, in daring lapses of taste that are not by any means ironic, isn't any kind we're familiar with before we hear it.

First, it is not at all rock music. Mind you, I don't think anything Destroyer's ever done is rock music, with the exception of the previous, Destroyer-as-band album This Night (which is shit-hot rock music) and some of the weaker stretches of Thief (which are not).

But most past Destroyer has been rock that negates itself, rock evoked in its absence and probable death with an elegaic approach. This album is the positive embrace of something else.

Scott Walker and John Cale are acknowledged templates, but Harry Nillson and Frank Sinatra also come in, as does a rotation of English mid-1980s synthesizer bands.** Equally important are the cast albums of various Broadway musicals, Camelot predominant among them. The theatricality jumps out at you. This is Dan's most scarily bold set of vocal performances ever - opening track Notorious Lightning makes sure you know it, with its final two minutes of a full robot parade band oom-pah-pahing away while Dan tries out every growl and gasp he can find in the phrase "And someone's got to fall before someone goes free!"

More offputting still, the almost fully synthesized music (with David Carswell and John Collins doubling him on Roland XV3080 and Kurzweil K2600) is like the gods dropping down from the painted scenery on high and turning out to be made mostly of Brie.

The idea that this is Dan saying that all life is artifice, mentioned in many reviews, is kindergarten stuff: Destroyer's assumed that proposition since the first album, We Shall Build Them A Golden Bridge. But in the past the relationship to the artifice was much more rueful and awkward. It's the joyful embrace, the Cocteau-like adoration of surface - the knowledge that in music, poetry or painting surface is depth, irony is earnestness, text is subtext, embraced without angst - that distinguishes this album from everything he's done before: All artifice is life.

How did he get there? This Night served its purpose by expunging all the political posturing, the self-consciousness about pop and anti-pop that burdened Streethawk and Thief. Now Dan has been able to assume his actual burden, the timeless one of the poet who wants to be an entertainer, the entertainer who wants to be a poet, and the dreamer who wants to be a revolutionary. He puts away boyish things like the future tense. Instead it's, "The new world has arrived - just look at my costume! And by the way, I really love music." (Thus The Music Lovers, his confessional piece revealing that his past love-hate stance toward music - like most hatred - was only excess love all along.)

The present tense has been mostly absent in Destroyer outings except as an occasion for regret, ever since the inspired but collegiate City of Daughters in 1998. Past and future had all the juice. What real time's return suggests is that here, for that first time, friendship, sex and love are palpable as more than farces. A line like "I lay myself down to observe your gilded jeans hit the ground" comes and goes in a flash but it is erotic for real while it's there, no boyish shock tactic. Suddenly Destroyer is not a rock or an island, since nobody worth knowing actually is.

Other old strategies vanish in the process. No fake women's names, for instance. The imaginary girls' names in his old songs weren't just dodges but insults; an imaginary Holly outstripping an actual Anne. That joke's over.The fake city names - Oakland, Warsaw, Berlin - do much more to expand the music's metaphoric universe. As he sings in What Road, "Able, willing, ready/ Fuck the Spiral Jetty!/ Tonight we work large!"

(Art-world humour -- like this reference to Robert Smithson's famous earthwork - also replaces a lot of the music-world satire of albums past, which seems more outward-looking and curious, while still keeping to his old adage, "you've got to stay critical or die." ... Not that there's none of the old, clever twists on fanzine jargon: "Your backlash was right where I wanted you/ Yes that's right I wanted you ... too," being the obvious instance.)

This album isn't free of his characteristic emotional skittishness and I wouldn't want it to be. But by the time it reaches What Road?, there's that chorus that counsels, "So quick let's go/ It's time for a ride/ The future is yours/ No, wait, I lied/ It is not yours/ It is a replica/ Of scattered ash/ And the road the rain's on." There, the skittishness isn't just present, it's accounted for: No, wait, it's life, not art. And if that's the way Destroyer's headed, bring on all the outdated midi-synthesized solos you can, because I want to be in the orbital satellite bedroom where this conversation can take place, for the duration.

Different ears will get attached to different elements. It might not stick the first time, but play it four or five times and then don't be surprised if it becomes difficult to listen to any pop music that is not Your Blues. You'll be one of those "submarines [that] don't mind spending their time in the ocean." Because it feels like that's what you were built for.

cw

* P.S. The other main reason I didn't cover this album in the newspaper, by the way, was very newspapery: Some of the songs on it were written for a musical called All Our Happy Days Are Stupid, to be staged in some future year in Toronto. And that musical was written by my wife. Now, I think life is one big conflict of interest, so in my opinion disclosure is everything. Still, it's one thing to divulge in a review that the artist is a friend of yours. But to have to say that your family hired him to create much of the album seemed too complicated a situation to ask the Globe to take on. I feel sure I would love this album even if I had never met anyone involved, but in reality, my affection for it is also a deep fraternal pride, my love affair with these songs also a family affair. It's unprofessional in the very best way. And that's why we have the Internet.

**ALSO - About the 80s synth bands (Joy Division and Echo & the Bunnymen pointedly not among them; instead think of, for instance, Japan): These bands have always been the reason for the remnant of a once-upon-a-time-affected accent in Bejar's voice that's been mistaken by every critic on earth for a David Bowie imitation, when it was in fact an imitation of various imitations of David Bowie. If I could retroactively sit everybody down and play them a David Bowie album immediately followed by a Destroyer album, half the verbiage in the Destroyer press kit would immediately vaporize.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, March 31 at 6:10 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)

 

COMMENTS

I've always compared Dan's voice to that of a vitriolic Al Stewart. Timbre-wise, that is.

Nice article.

Posted by Simon Lewis on June 4, 2004 2:20 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson