by carl wilson

Destroyer's Rubies:
'I Passed Off Those Couplets
In Honour of the Void...'

destroyerwithrubies.jpg

Yes, the much-delayed post on Destroyer's Rubies by Destroyer aka Dan Bejar. The domestic chaos this fall led me to put this one off, and now the album (due Feb. 21) has leaked all over the interwebbage. The upside is that people can respond with their own thoughts now.

It never occurred to me that the "drinking game" is a sub rosa form of criticism until I saw the notion of a Destroyer drinking game get tossed around on the Merge Records web forum. It brings to the surface everything that's "typical" of its target, and the rules serve as a skeletal portrait of the thing at hand, a kind of recipe. I'll put my own adapted version of the rules on the jump at the end of this post. My point is that Destroyer's Rubies, more I think than any past Destroyer album, would leave you totally hammered: In a sense the surprise is that it is such a characteristic Destroyer album, that it doesn't take some abrupt turn in the manner of Dan's first two records after signing with Merge, This Night and Your Blues, the first a sprawling, noisy and near-improvised rock record and the second an inside-out tesseract of MIDI synth decadence.

Instead, it's taking the spirits of both those records and transfusing them back into the comparatively straight rock form heard on Streethawk. It's probably closer to the record Merge anticipated when they took Destroyer on, the one most fans expected to follow Streethawk. Ryan suggested to me that it's the most "accessible" Destroyer album yet - a funny claim for a disc that begins with a nearly 10-minute-long song with no real chorus, but still a relatively reasonable one.

If I had been told this in advance, I might have felt let down: Why retreat to rock? People take the name Destroyer as a joke - this little fey singer-songwriter advertising himself like Thor - and it is, but no, it isn't. Destroyer always had destruction earnestly on his agenda, a war against the social and aesthetic confines of "indie rock," to break on through to a more imaginatively complex, less compromised zone - which is just the way Your Blues sounded, like a liberation from the empire of electric guitar. Owen Pallett (Final Fantasy) told me a few weeks ago that he'd been thinking of inviting Destroyer to tour with him this spring, the deal being that Owen with his harpsichord and string quartet would serve as Destroyer's backing band. Part of me would much rather hear that than a solid working rock band, as Dan's reportedly assembled semi-permanently here. The song Looter's Follies opens with a verse that could be heard as surrender: "You can huff and you can puff/ But you'll never destroy that stuff./ Finally, I see why, I suppose:/ Kids, you'd better change your feathers/ 'Cuz you'll never fly with those/... things." Perhaps meaning, give this crusade up, it'll never fly.

But by the end of the song, he's singing, "I swear somewhere the truth lies within this wood!/ I swear Looter's Follies has never sounded so good!" So the surrender is a feint - it's actually a boast. This is the most assured, least defensive record Dan's ever made; it's "characteristic" because it's so confident in its character. It's not afraid to rock because it's not obliged to rock, and often it doesn't - there's as much chanteur-style crooning and theatricality here as on Your Blues, and knotty instrumental tomfoolery as on This Night - but rather than forming a Brechtian distancing screen, it coalesces into something like the song's "mercurial presence hitherto unknown." (A section hilariously sung, by the way, in an apparently deliberate Bob Dylan imitation - talk about swagger.) In sum, This Night and Your Blues were the manifestos for which this album is the exemplary masterpiece. Those were the journeys into the mine, and now here are Destroyer's rubies. (Now, really, Your Blues was a complete treasure in itself, but as a useful myth, let it stand.)

Nearly every song here achieves the sort of epic form that was hinted at occasionally in past songs such as The Bad Arts, Crystal Country and What Road, dramatic pieces in which there are multiple scenes, themes and characters, variously placed in time and in chambers of memory. The "la-da-da-dee-dai" choruses that appear in six of the album's 10 songs have many functions, and one is to crossfade between stations in a given song.

And while Destroyer still does and doubtless always will embody a polemic, an ongoing debate about the role of art in the world and of the art business in art and Destroyer's own role in all of it... on Destroyer's Rubies it is only secondary - which again suggests the end of the cycle that began on Thief, in which that dilemma was either rhetorically or formally (on Your Blues) a constant preoccupation. It still gets in some pointed sallies - as on the opening track's "Oh, it is just your precious American underground/ And it is born of wealth," and in Looter's Follies, "Why can't you see/ That a life in art and a life of mimicry/ They're the same thing!" - but this album is more about worldly experience, usually considered in retrospect, with fierce passions and regrets. The (mostly) women he sings about and to - Candace in European Oils, the one with "that penchant for destruction in the way you talk" in the transfixing Painter in Your Pocket, even the one identified as A Dangerous Woman Up to a Point - all pulse with personality, rummaging through the wilds of these songs, and are themselves wounded or refreshed there. They're seldom the girls-named-whatever who sauntered into earlier Destroyer songs to serve their rhetorical purposes and then be summarily dismissed.

All of which helps make the album "accessible" to those who don't necessarily have the preoccupations shared by Dan and, I suspect, many core Destroyer fans up till now. But the real reason this album is going to be embraced by many, many people outside that inner circle is that it's so luxuriantly musical, with the full potlatch-prodigiousness of textures and harmonies found on This Night - but where that album was eager to just throw all this music on a bonfire, here it's built up and sculpted. These tunes aren't just settings for Dan's lyrics, supporting sceneries for contemporary poetry in song, they're songs that swell with further song - the da-dada-dum-da's are needed to soak it all up. And you're conscious not only of Dan as maestro but of the independent will of the band members, always in the pocket but bursting to get out: Scott Morgan on drums and sax, Tim Loewen on bass, Fisher Rose on vibes and trumpet, Ted Bois hanging garlands of piano and other keyboards, and Nicolas Bragg and Dan jousting with guitar lines that often rival the singing as lead voices. Music writers may have to give up the "aka Dan Bejar" after Destroyer's name now.

You could argue, and I have, that many of these points are also true of Your Blues, in its "adoration of surface," its orchestral manoeuvres, its immersion in dramatic emotion - but that album had its naugahyde-white synthetic coating, like a plastic bubble to keep it pure and cool. There was a fresh sexiness to that music, and the tactility of the synthesizers made it gleam. But this album is made of rough leather crusted with stones and thorns as well as gems - here, seduction isn't just a theory but a fluctuating-body-temperature sensory struggle in progress, between humans with as much "elementary desire" as pride or positional wariness at stake. Yet those humans are not private enclosures, as in most rock songwriting - they're a mess of historical and aesthetic projectiles, feral political objects, murderer-loving corpses and sacrificial gods. When Dan sings in European Oils, "I made a tomb for all the incompatible selves I could take/ And I, I bought bells to the wake," he's pointing to the (twinned) scene of a crime - massacre or enlightenment, it's up to you - of which the rest of the album is consequence and investigation. (Yes, we're now in the territory of my EMP paper on "bandonyms" and the decentred self, though the "masculine abject" is mostly left behind on Destroyer's Rubies.)

None of which footnoted blather can really touch the language here, which jumps off from the dramatic monologues of Your Blues into a sphere that's practically Shakespearian. The words are such that I can only mix metaphors over them - they could be described with one of the album's recurring phrases: "tall ships made of snow invading the sun." Over and over he's pulling ephemeral bits out of every extant lexical bag, forging them into phrases at a blow. It's the kind of casual verbal sharpshooting you can only do when you can do it blindfolded: While much of the singing is Dan at his most languid, now and then he cockily gears up into rapidfire rounds, as on a verse of Dangerous Woman Up to a Point so accelerated I can hardly decipher it. (It concludes, "It was a trap it was a good time it was hard to realize - oh!") Or on the shrapnel-shedding rocker 3000 Flowers, which flicks its lighter at Ezra Pound ("I was... a fresh face on a dying scene/ One-hundredth of a wet black bough"), then culminates in a striking passage with which I'll end these revels. It reverts to the rock-scene issue, but that's just fertilizer. It begins with a single voice which is then, on the repetition of "And the sky still reigned...," joined by a backing chorus, as though the congregation he's addressing ("the music lovers," eponymous subjects of a Your Blues song) had joined in, showing him up as one (or many) among them, just another destructive wastrel - except this one is Destroyer, and he's the one holding the rubies.

I was Clytemnestra on a good day,
Dispensing wisdom to the uninitiated,
The initiates brought out in tumbrels, shadowed by the dawn.
(Shadowed by the dawn, shadowed by the dawn.)
And like a woman I was kept
As the wealthy American underground wept
At the sight of Rhode Island sinking into the sea.
And the sky still reigned supreme over the land,
As the music lovers sat crosslegged in the sand
And in time and in space, and in other words in a band,
Too much like churchgoers...
And the sky still reigned supreme over the land,
As the music lovers sat crosslegged in the sand
And in time and in space, and in other words in a band,
Too much like destroyers of themselves.



(See below for the drinking game.)

Epilogue: Destroyer Drinking Game
Adapted from ideas in the Merge Destroyer forum, notably by "foe-free" and "Zeitgoat."

Play Destroyer's Rubies (or other Destroyer album). Take a drink whenever there is:

- Mention of a previous album or song title;
- Recycling or referring to lyrics of another Destroyer song; drink twice if it's a song on the same album; also drink twice if they're from pre-official releases We'll Build Them a Golden Bridge or Ideas for Songs;
- Reference to or appropriation of lyrics from a song by someone else;
- Mention of another band or musician;
- Mention of Destroyer/destroy/destruction - drink twice;
- Reference to music in general;
- Reference to/attack on the music scene or music industry;
- "Meta" lyrics that refer to the song in progress or elements thereof - drink twice;
- Swearing;
- Mention of geographical location - drink twice for mentions of Vancouver, the West Coast, or particular places there;
- Section of song consisting of "la la la" or "la-da-dee-da" etc. (warning: applies to all but four songs on this album)
- Guitar solo that mirrors la-la-la's;
- Mention of a season or month of the year;
- Mention of a specific year or century;
- Line in the imperative form, giving advice or an order - drink twice for advice or order that is cryptically figurative, like "don't ride the silver rocket";
- Line that reverses, contradicts or severely qualifies previous line;
- Character(s) in song quoted (eg. "She tasted of the Christmas wines and said, 'So many things have run through me...' ") - drink twice if the character is specified to be singing the quotation;
- Invocation of a cliche or idiom, however dismantled;
- Use of a woman's name;
- Character assassination - drink twice if of a woman;
- Characterization (hostile or not) of men/boys or women/girls in general;
- Conspicuously long pause (line break?) in the middle of a phrase;
- Falsetto or attempted falsetto;
- Sudden crescendo and/or acceleration;
- Use of archaic or ostentatiously formal or foreign-language term;
- Direct address to an audience by name or collective noun eg. "kids..." or "Contessa..." ("you" doesn't count);
- Reference to visual art or artist(s);
- Literary reference or mention of reading;
- General statement about art/aesthetics;
- Reference to family relationship, eg. brother, mother, husband, bride - drink twice for "sister," or for any plural family reference, eg. "fathers", or for incestuous overtones;
- Reference to United States or Americanness;
- Medieval or swords-and-sorcery-style reference;
- Reference to royalty or feudal hierarchy - drink twice for reference to disillusionment with royalty;
- Reference to legal or political system;
- Reference to religion;
- Reference to a small group or secret society;
- Reference to conspiracy or corruption;
- Reference to honesty (or lack thereof);
- Reference to freedom or imprisonment;
- Reference to drinking;
- Reference to insanity;
- Reference to death or murder;
- Reference to the way a woman moves;
- Reference to bells;
- Reference to the sea or matters nautical;
- Reference to a garden or the woods;
- Reference to the weather, meteorological phenomena, sun or snow;
- Reference to fire or other disaster - drink twice for apocalyptic reference;
- Sudden shift into unexpectedly sweet, tender tone, musically or rhetorically.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, December 13 at 6:12 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (15)

 

COMMENTS

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Posted by John on January 7, 2006 5:48 AM

 

 

This makes a word of game

Posted by Klaus on January 5, 2006 6:36 PM

 

 

Actually, Dan originally intended the name "Night Moves" for "This Night", but was apparently talked out of it.

FWIW.

Posted by ryan on January 2, 2006 12:56 PM

 

 

After listening to "A Sick Priest Learns to Last Forever" with it's "Vampire Blues" guitar work, I am beginning to wonder if "This Night" was an homage to "Tonight's the Night". While the songs are very different, both were recorded in the style of a ragged bar band and the titles of the two records are too close to be chance.

Posted by mushmouth on December 30, 2005 3:01 AM

 

 

I don't think you mentioned it Carl, but I'm actually hearing "a TUMOR for all the incompatible cells..." when he first says it at the beginning.

Posted by ryan on December 28, 2005 11:22 AM

 

 

"Owen Pallett (Final Fantasy) told me a few weeks ago that he'd been thinking of inviting Destroyer to tour with him this spring, the deal being that Owen with his harpsichord and string quartet would serve as Destroyer's backing band."

I would give absolutely anything to see this happen.

Posted by Corbin on December 28, 2005 12:41 AM

 

 

Great piece, I read it the other day but didn't get around to reading the drinking game until today. Can't resist pointing out that this line that is referred to as a "drink twice" --

>> Line in the imperative form, giving advice or an order - drink twice for advice or order that is cryptically figurative, like "don't ride the silver rocket";<<

-- is also a Sonic Youth reference! Chug!

Posted by dave r. on December 19, 2005 11:34 PM

 

 

PS: Dan says that "incompatible cells" and "incompatible selves", quote, "mean the same thing in Destroyer syntax. To the point that 'incompatible selves' was the original lyric that I changed just prior to going into the studio."

Posted by zoilus on December 16, 2005 9:32 PM

 

 

What is it that's like "dancing about architecture" again? I forget. Maybe writing about Destroyer albums. Rubies is very good, but if people haven't realized he's the best song-writer around by now, no one album or series of rave reviews will do much to convince. A Meesoo Lee video could help.

Posted by Andy on December 16, 2005 5:08 PM

 

 

"annunciation"! love it!

Until I read your post (and was duly misled), I had it as "incompatible souls"! "cells" is making my head a little confused at this late hour.

Posted by andrew on December 16, 2005 1:55 AM

 

 

the wonderful thing about destroyer is that you can have your cells and your selves and whatever else you think is in there. whatever it brings i take as built-in, and not an accident. maybe not consciously wrought by dan himself, but intentional nonetheless.
if he'd wanted to be specific, i suspect he'd enunciate a bit better; i'll take annunciation any day.

Posted by sasha marie on December 15, 2005 10:38 PM

 

 

Dan advises me that the line I quoted as "I made a tomb for all the incompatible selves I could take" is actually "incompatible cells." Which makes me a bit sheepish about my interpretive spree. But if you read that as a doubleplay on biological cells as well as jail cells, I think the leap to selfhood is still reasonable - but not so straightforwardly. What did I expect, this is Destroyer...!

There are other lyric errors here too (it's not "shadowed by the dawn" but the much better "shat out by the dawn"!) but they're less material to the post.

The fast passage from A Dangerous Woman Up to a Point (a title that, by the way, echoes the Ideas for Songs number, "Song about a Girl Up to a Point") goes like this:

A Dangerous Woman Up To A Point once said
Ive never read so-and-so so why mention him here, in this square where culprits axe me, my dear? Tried to enjoy myself at the Society Ball, really I did. Froze on Union Street, it was springtime, I was just a kid, lost in a map of the stars others called your eyes. It was a trap!
It was a good time! It was a hard to realize!

Posted by zoilus on December 15, 2005 10:10 PM

 

 

THANK YOU! So much to mull over!

I just.. um.. 'found' a copy of this online yesterday, and have been listening since. It's far too early to have digested much, but wow, so much sticks out. The image of the wealthy american underground weeping at the sight of Rhode Island sinking into the sea knocked my head sideways. (living in RI, being an indie-rock listener, etc)

I can't wait to actually buy it.

Posted by andrew on December 15, 2005 2:32 AM

 

 

Somebody, somewhere, called Dan Bejar the hardest working music critic around, and I'm inclined to agree, or at least, it's the only way I can wrap my head around his lyrics.

This is a wonderful album, but I don't know if I would call it his most accessible, in terms of digestibility - there's something about "Thief" that does that for me (most notably the 1st and 5th track, Destroyer's The Temple and City of Daughters, respectively) - but it's safe enough to say that this will be the album that allows more people to access Bejar.

Anyways, great piece!

Pax,
Jay

Posted by Jay Watts III on December 15, 2005 12:13 AM

 

 

You said it, Carl.

Posted by ryan on December 14, 2005 11:23 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson