For as long as Dan Bejar has been cooing his way across three decades of Destroyer records, he’s maintained a solipsistic focus on the travails over his insouciant persona. The building blocks of your typical Destroyer song are wispy allusions to places, sights, women, wines, weather, histories, novels, records, singles, shows: whatever Bejar has absorbed into his consciousness and transformed into stylistically unbound dioramas of his psyche. Every Destroyer record is its own labyrinth in some form or another.
What’s ultimately stunning about LABYRINTHITIS, besides the fact that it’s the most upright that Bejar’s sounded for years, is how little he feels wrapped in this manufactured world or the status quo of the musical one. Instead, his focus, more often than ever, is on our own.
It’s apparent from the record’s opening moment, where mollifying swathes of synth and guitar swirl benevolently around the ears. Not only is “It’s In Your Heart Now” one of Bejar’s least verbose songs in that it contains only 17 unique words, but each one of them feels directed to us. It’s a solemn declaration of empathy from a man whose penchant for thespian-like dramatization oft threatens to reach parodic levels. There’s nothing that says he isn’t speaking to some off-screen character, but in the same way, its chord sequence doesn’t resolve until right at the end (its resolution cruelly teased in the middle), you can sense that the meaning of the song’s title, and who he means it for, is us.
Though LABYRINTHITIS might be as maximalist as anything in Bejar’s extensive catalog, lyrically, it bears moments of exquisite economy. The man you could once count on to spout intoxicating torrents of words 15 years ago is now far more likely to indulge in the potency of omission or a well-placed pause. Granted, that man is still prevalent in the sprawling poetry closing out “June” and the paranoid whisperings of “Tintoretto, It’s For You”. But that old incarnation is overshadowed by the one leaving breathless miles of space for disgusted rumination on the state of “The States”, allocating the title track as a rare instrumental for the project and concluding – at the record’s conclusion, no less – that a hundred million words are “too many words to say”.
It’s not an entirely novel approach because Bejar has dabbled more frequently in terseness ever since Kaputt. But on LABYRINTHITIS, it forms like a counterargument to the world he finds us living in: endlessly surrounded, endlessly stimulated, caught in our internal mazes, and unable to navigate them without damaging ourselves. In that sense, though LABYRINTHITIS contains as many open-ended questions and inscrutable asides as any Destroyer record, they’re offset by moments of clarity, even solutions. “No matter where, you’re gonna suffer,” Bejar concedes on “Suffer”. It’s less pessimistic than assertive acceptance, especially when paired with the blood-rushing rock surrounding the sentiment.
Similarly, the music on LABYRINTHITIS rings with a sense of vitality that Bejar and the band haven’t demonstrated in years. Compare the restrained disco groove of “June” or the manic bop of “It Takes a Thief” to the bleached thumpers on ken or the mid-tempo lethargy of Have We Met, and you’ll notice a striking difference. Like many musicians during the pandemic, the band may have taken advantage of remote recording and file-sharing to juggle ideas in an asynchronous space. They arrived with a collection of tunes loosely tethered to disco rhythms and led by piano and drums but is otherwise strikingly eclectic.
“Suffer” suddenly nosedives into surging syncopated rock. “Eat the Wine, Drink the Bread” pulses like a severed coda to Kaputt’s “Bay of Pigs”. “Tintoretto, It’s For You” combines blaring MIDI keys and skronking horns in a genre-defying number that swaggers menacingly. These, plus the irresistible energy-laden “It Take a Thief” and the grace notes of strings on “The States”, feel like thrilling moments of discovery for a project already known for exploring the distant boundaries of rock’s history.
All that sonic extravagance lends Bejar’s return to solo acoustic guitar on the album’s conclusion even more weight. “The Last Song” is a simple little melody in contrast to the last decade of Destroyer songs, but Bejar delivers it with a startling vulnerability. The quiver in his voice and how his trademark unevenness reads more drained than merely dry. It punctuates the sly comedy of the song’s conceit with the same tinge of emotional exhaustion laced into just about everything nowadays. Like those on the album’s other bookend, his words feel inherently directed toward us, even if the subject is unnamed. Though they could come across as cynical (“You move to LA / You’re just another person that moves to LA,” he cracks), they instead form gentle reminders of our plight, as if he were a confidant tending to our problems in his own warped way.
It’s a graceful ending to a record that finds Bejar continuing to transition from being merely an admirable artist into one that’s approachable on a deeper level. As an entry into Destroyer, LABYRINTHITIS succeeds in a plethora of ways, but where it works the most is in transforming a notoriously prickly artist into one with the unforeseen capacity to retract his spikes. Hard to stand out as a destroyer, it appears, if everything’s already on the cusp of destruction.