Thanks, Dan Bejar. Yes, I’d like to thank you personally for your latest contribution to the music world in the guise of Destroyer, the recent Notorious Lightning and Other Works extended player. I’m offering my thanks because there’s really no reason for this recording to exist, but I’m glad that it does. It consists of alternate versions of six songs that can be found on 2004’s Your Blues, which was Destroyer’s most successful album to date, in terms of both exposure and critical praise. So why would he take a collection of songs that was perceived to be his finest, most innovative work to date and revisit them as more conventional rock tunes?
Well, I’d like to think that he did it for me. Now, I know that’s not the case, but I’m talking in a more general sense. As in, he did it for all of the huge Destroyer fans who just couldn’t adapt to the sound on Your Blues. And that’s what it is — the sound, not the songs. I never doubted that Bejar’s songwriting remained as strong as ever. (Well, not quite at the level of his 2001 masterpiece, Streethawk: A Seduction, but I’m still waiting for an album to come along to match that one.) In fact, the songs on Your Blues were much more focused, complete compositions than the erratic, often-ambling stabs at majesty on 2002’s This Night. But, oh, those synths! I just couldn’t get past them. From the moment that disc’s opener, “Notorious Lightning”, launched into its first big Roland XV3080/Kurtzweil K2600-driven flourish, bringing to mind MIDI memories of Castlevania and very early Internet surfing, I knew Your Blues wasn’t for me.
It’s not that I have something against synthesizers. It’s just that when they are used exclusively, in place of all other instrumentation, it proves to be too much. And save the random acoustic guitar, Your Blues was all synths, all the time. Even though Bejar’s intoxicating chirp of a voice was as commanding as ever, and his inscrutable lyrics remained great fun to hopelessly dissect, there was just no getting past those synthesizers. More than anything, excessive use of synthesizers conveys a sense of coldness. Personal taste obviously plays a huge part, but one of the great things about rock and roll is how tangible it is. When you listen to a great rock song, you can picture the group in the studio or in a club, together, playing it.
That obviously wasn’t the case with Your Blues, and when it came time to get out on the road and tour in support of the album, Bejar didn’t even attempt to try and recreate the sound of the album. Instead, he teamed with Frog Eyes — fellow weirdo Hab rockers who also served as the opening act — as his backing band and rocked up the Your Blues tunes. And that’s where this EP came from, the product of a successful tour and a weekend in the studio, an attempt to replicate the more chaotic sound of that tour.
And with all that said, with the presence of the slashing guitar work of Frog Eyes frontman Carey Mercer, with prominent drums and synthesizers used as only part of the equation, there’s still something just a bit off with Notorious Lightning. I maintain that Destroyer sounds best with a full-band setup, but too often the songs here echo the forced grandeur of This Night, an album where it seemed like every song attempted to be a rock epic for the ages. This is what happens on the EP’s title track, and it gets bogged down in its own grand ambitions, pushing the 10-minute mark for no real reason at all. “The Music Lovers”, while not nearly as long, has similar faults. It’s essentially played at three-quarters of its original speed and serves as a showcase for Mercer’s impressive, but at times distracting guitar leads. Destroyer is well-known for its bombastic, ascending riffing, but they work best within the confines of a complete song, not when it’s the only main attraction. This was what ultimately what made This Night a disappointment.
“An Actor’s Revenge” gets it right and showcases Destroyer at its finest. It is the one song on the EP that achieves a swirling mess of beautiful noise, all kept in check by Bejar’s vocals and his unique wordplay, which consists of oddly placed rhymes and lines feeding directly into each other. “New Ways of Living” is another that comes close to capturing the perfect mix of sounds, and showcases one of Bejar’s signature songwriting techniques — the outro chorus. Just when you think you’ve figured out what the song is all about, Bejar is apt to throw that one extra part, which he’ll often ride out for a minute or two. (See Streethawk‘s “The Bad Arts”, The New Pornographers’ “Execution Day”, etc.)
Imperfections and all, it’s still the perfect tonic for those of us who were generally creeped out by Your Blues. And really, it’s the best of both worlds. Bejar gets to explore a new sonic landscape, but he’s still nice enough to throw a bone to us synth-phobes. How swell.