Oh, Dan Bejar, how far we have come. I never found you untalented. I just assumed I didn’t “get” what your small but fiercely loyal group of supporters has endorsed for so very long. I never cared for the New Pornographers (though you reluctantly admit to even being a part of the group). I found Swan Lake’s debut wobbly and lacking focus. And to be fair, I only gave Destroyer’s Rubies a couple listens before putting it down because I didn’t know what the hell you were getting at and, to be honest, found you a bit self-indulgent. Then one day, a couple of months back, I received a copy of Trouble in Dreams and told myself I would give you another chance. What I found was a much more accessible album, with bombastic percussion and some pretty great hooks. So here I am—I laid down my $15 dollars and am anxiously a-waiting to see you live.
My first observation is how much stockier and taller Bejar is than I imagined. His curly mound of hair permanently hangs over his eyes like curtains, and the flannel shirt he is wearing makes him look more String Cheese Incident than beloved indie rock deity. This distraction quickly subsides as he breaks into “Blue Flower/Blue Flame”, the opening track from Trouble in Dreams.
23 Apr 2008: Bowery Ballroom New York, NY
“Okay fine/ even the sky looks like wine,” Bejar rasps, and his entire audience of NYU students and late twenty-somethings is instantly captivated. Just as it appears in the recording, his voice is (unusually) clear and distinct, while a guitar twinkles through its chords behind the song’s melody. Part of Bejar’s charm (and ironically, the majority of his critical frustration) lies in his non-sequitur-laced lyrics, which feature imaginary characters and insightful observations draped in theatrical settings. When I interviewed Swan Lake collaborator Spencer Krug several months ago, he spoke in awe of Bejar’s lyrical ability. Yet, most of the stories in Bejar’s songs run in circles. There may be one beautiful line per song that a listener holds on to—much like a highlighter running rampant over meaningful passages the first time a student reads Saramago or Calvino. His words, however, tend to sing, and because they are so strange and open to interpretation, they can mean anything to just about anyone willing to open their imagination to Bejar’s world.
Destroyer immediately segues into “Rubies”, the opening track from the band’s previous album. This opener cannot be any more different than the song it follows, but such is the Destroyer catalogue and the disposition of the group’s bard and troubadour. The song’s sprawling, epic hook bounces through the walls of the Bowery breaking in between Bejar’s line of poetry: “Don’t worry about her/ she’s been known to appreciate/ the elegance of an empty room.” Possessing an anthem-like quality combined with a literary elegance often found in many of the band’s songs, Bejar wants his audience to drown in the music before he turns down the volume, forcing everyone to now focus on the words he sings, before flipping the switch once again. There are very few moments of relaxed routine this evening, as Bejar plays with the cadence of his delivery even in his more straightforward ballads. A Destroyer song can take off in any direction at any given time, often leaving its audience too bewildered to understand exactly what Bejar is getting at. This device, however, seems to work: most of the crowd this evening theatrically anticipates Bejar’s twists and turns and even seems mildly amused by it.
“My Favorite Year” is well received; meanwhile, the bottle of Jameson resting by Bejar’s feet is quickly depleting. It is difficult to decipher whether Bejar is semi or completely intoxicated, because though his performance does not suffer, a sober Destroyer show would rarely be called sharp or focused anyway. Bejar’s songs, and the lyrics he creates, are a beautiful mess of sonic pleasantries and stories recited in iambic pentameter. His gift comes in his ability to passionately tell a story in song as the entire ship seems ready to capsize at any given moment, yet everyone on board continues to trust their inebriated captain to protect them from the pending violent squall.
The band decides to begin their encore with one of the most accessible songs from Trouble. “Foam Hands” finds Bejar enunciating and dragging his words out longer than usual as a guitar quietly twinkles in the foreground for an ’80s power ballad-like surge. As a teenage couple holds one set of hands together and another in the air, gently rocking a football stadium foam hand, Bejar breathes: “I am not the kind to tell you what is true and what is totally out of control…” as a swell of reverb-drenched strings soaks up the stage. The entire room breaks out in whistles while the ship’s captain smiles sheepishly under his lion’s mane of brown curls. Though their seemingly introverted hero may never crack the Top Ten, he will always faithfully remain theirs, and it seems apparent that Bejar has no intentions of ever bringing his wayward ship into dock.