Triumphantly literate, lacerating pop…this time with a band.
Serpentine, elegant, self-reflexive and imagistic, Daniel Bejar’s lyrics are the most deviously crafted in rock music these days. Consider the opening lines to “Rubies”, the semi-title track in Destroyer’s seventh full-length. “Dueling cyclones jackknife/ They got eyes for your wife/ And the blood that lives in your heart.” It’s an image that contains violence, anger, humor, that bridges high-art metaphor and colloquial come-down. It’s poetry punctured by self-deprecating wit, and it’s just the opening salvo in an album that’s a brilliant, continuous jump-cut from biting aside to literate reference to arresting image.
Art—and its difficult reception—is the main subject here. There are four songs about painting and two where critics figure prominently. A priest character, devoted to his calling but distracted by females, makes an appearance in three of the songs, most memorably in the opener where “Priest says, “Please, I can’t stand my knees. And I can’t bear her raven tresses caught up in the breeze like that.”
Bejar’s best sarcasm, though, is reserved for critics, an American underground “with not a writer in the lot”. “You can huff and you can puff but you’ll never destroy that stuff,” he says in the luminous “Looter’s Stuff”, his viewpoint careening wildly from hangers-on and pretenders (“Girls like gazelles graze/ Boys wearing bells blaze new trails in sound”) to burned-out creators (“A famous Toronto painter shot me down/ ‘Oh, I’ve busted my ass on these streets too long,’ he said/ I set fire to the bed and tore his gown.”). Long compared to Bowie, yet truly one of rock’s most original, eccentric voices, Bejar uses the song as a platform to mock dialogs about authenticity and innovation. “Why can’t you see that a life in art and a life of mimicry—it’s the same thing!” he wails at one point, and again near the end, notes that “I swear these Looter’s Follies never sounded so good”. The lyrics are difficult, almost impacted in their complexity and conflicting inferences, yet apart from his acerbic verses, the song has a lyrical lilt to it. There’s a wonderful, almost euphoric lift to the wordless choruses that connect his rants, a blues-ish swing in the 12/8 piano runs that snake in and out of the words.
Bejar also has a way with women, sketching them with X-Acto knife precision. Some couplets are sharp enough to hurt, as in “A Dangerous Woman Up to a Point”, where the title character argues about literature in a public square and leaves a lover for dead, at least figuratively. Others lines are fonder, as for example, “You disrupt the world’s disorder just by the virtue of your grace, you know…” Yet in a world of generic love songs, they are breathtakingly specific, nothing moon-june-spoon about them, but suggesting instead real, strong and difficult woman that Bejar has observed in detail.
Bejars songs have, in the past, sometimes seemed like vehicles for his lyrics, yet with Destroyer’s Rubies he seems to have made peace with the musical element of his work as well. Unlike his last full-length, the entirely synthesized Your Blues, or like the EP Notorious Lightning and Other Works recorded with Frog Eyes, he is working here with a group of musicians brought together, more or less, to deliver his songs. This is a wonderful, grounding influence, giving texture and flavor to his compositions, from the laid-back lyricism of “Watercolors into the Ocean” to the harder-rocking drive of “3000 Flowers”. He is, as he says on this latter song, “In time and in space and (in other words) in a band,” and it gives Rubies a fluid natural quality.
The disc closes rather oddly with “Sick Priest Learns to Last Forever”, a cut whose opening sounds so much like Neil Young’s “Down By the River” that you wonder whether Bejar slipped out and hired Crazy Horse. But, once into the cut, you realize that it stands on its own, radiant, blues-shimmering and hallucinatory, and anyway, no one could say this one sounds like Bowie.