[17 March 2004]
In the wake of the critical acclaimed heaped upon the New Pornographers sophomore album Electric Version, songwriter and contributor Dan Bejar graces us with another hybrid glam-folk explosion with the fourth album by his solo project Destroyer. For those that are new to Destroyer, there is nothing on Your Blues that will snare you like his contributions “Testament to Youth in Verse” or “Ballad of a Comeback Kid” did on Electric Version, but Your Blues captivates nonetheless by exuded other strengths. Canned electronic horns, schoolyard hand-claps and doo-wop style backing vocals are methodically strewn across 12 of Bejar’s most consistent compositions to date to create an enchanting view into the world of one of the most enigmatic figures in indie rock.
Unlike the past two Destroyer albums which utilized an organic full band lineup, Your Blues is primarily Bejar solo, only joined by an occasional extra keyboard player. Where the last Destroyer album This Night found Bejar sounding like a burnt-out Billy Corgan on lithium, this album strips away the rock trappings of the electric guitar/bass/vocals arrangements in favor of keyboards and acoustic guitars. Many of the complaints surrounding This Night focused on the manner in which the band strayed from the actual composition and quickly eroded into heavy metal riffing. The emphasis on acoustic guitars and the gentles sounds massaged from the electric keyboards doesn’t allow for this misstep which is part of what makes Your Blues a superior album.
The other key to this album is that Bejar has fine-tuned his eccentric brand of Bowie by way of Nick Drake pop by trimming away many of the kitsch references that often littered his work. There are still signs of this, most notably the Fleetwood Mac referential yelp of “You can go your own way” during the break on “The Music Lovers”, but instead of irritating the listener, this sporadic use of a popular reference is more fluid than in the past and serves to lift the composition rather than drag it down.
It is clear from the opening moments of opening song “Notorious Lightning” that Bejar has shifted his focus away from the grand theatrics of traditional rock music and has instead focused on the task of creating mini symphonies within each song. Keyboards hum brightly while the acoustic guitar strums the rhythm behind Bejar’s froggy vocals as the song builds to a crescendo with ‘80s bubbling synthesizers and pulsing MIDI strings. Make no mistake, this is closer to Europe’s “Final Countdown” than “Jackie” from the New Pornographers Mass Romantic. The horrifying fact is that this piece of ‘80s production nostalgia stirs up a maelstrom of emotion that neither feels contrived or dated. The best comparison would be to the production style utilized by Stephen Merritt on many Magnetic Fields albums.
All the stops are pulled out once again on “It’s Gonna Take an Airplane” which extracts the vocal melody and a keyboard-based oboe line during the verse as the center of the composition. The choruses flourish with the addition of computer-generated clapping and a soaring keyboard lead that is reminiscent of something from New Order’s Brotherhood.
The switch-up continues on the future marching band classic “An Actor’s Revenge”. Synthesizers and keys continue to provide the backdrop, but this time reverbed snare drum rolls are added to the verses and a crashing gong blows out the chorus. Vocally, Bejar continues his jagged spoken word delivery with the one difference being that he provides a well placed series of doo-wop “ba-ba-ba"s up in the mix, which serves to juxtapose the drilling rhythm. The result is frenetic experience that finds a powerful percussive force struggling with a chorus of backing vocals for control of the track.
The musical debt here is still owed to David Bowie, most specifically the Hunky Dory album, but Bejar seems to have stretched his influences. “The Music Lovers” has the self-referential lyrics and melody of a Smiths number, and the title track “Your Blues” has the drunken bawdiness best exhibited by the Pogues or Arab Strap. What stands above the nuanced references of these tracks is that as Destroyer, Dan Bejar is able to build upon his influences to consistently emerge with some new and arresting type of song.
One key to any Destroyer album is that there will be a self-reference within one of the songs. This homage to ‘80s heavy metal music emerges upon the finest track on the album, “New Ways of Living” which combines all of the signature production traits found on Your Blues in one grand swoop. The result is a use of the loud/quiet dynamic perfected on Nighthawk: A Seduction fused with the shambling feel of “Hey, Snow White” from This Night, that ultimately sounds like the Magnetic Fields covering the Rolling Stones.
Over the course of four albums as Destroyer, Dan Bejar has occupied the territories of four-track noise pop, sneering coffeehouse folk and brooding guitar rock. All of these turns have been met with critical praise, but each felt more like a posturing machination rather than the real Destroyer. On Your Blues all of these costumes are laid aside in lieu of traditional song structures augmented by simple acoustic guitar and keyboards. The one constant that remains in place is the willfully obtuse lyrics that have become a signature of a Destroyer album. Although the faux strings, drums and horns do feel a bit contrived at points the overwhelming feel is one of ambition rather than pretension. The power and beauty of Your Blues proves that this Destroyer’s got a name, and it’s the comeback kid.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/destroyer-yourblues/