Fans of majestic melodies and abstract lyrical narratives, rejoice! Destroyer’s Dan Bejar continues to tread the thin line between the nonsensical and profound.
I could be mistaken, but I suspect that Trouble in Dreams will be the only album of the year to begin with the statement “Okay, fine / Even the sky looks like wine”, and even that seems like a metaphor of sorts -- such a sudden opening only further suggests that the album is simply a continuation of Destroyer’s Rubies (which itself could be considered a return to form after the MIDI-based experiment of Your Blues). Strangely, with a songwriter as brilliant as Dan Bejar behind the wheel, this isn’t a bad thing at all. Bejar’s songs continue to overflow with abstract imagery and obscure allusions (both personal and historical) sans explanation. If you set the music aside, the lyric sheet reads like some bizarre journal, as if challenging the listener to incorporate lines like “I gave you a flower because foxes travel light” or “I look like a fucking monster with this wing” into everyday conversation. He continues to breathlessly pack dense paragraphs into overflowing verses, sandwiched in between the passionate “La-la-la” choruses. Most of all, though, Bejar still refuses to accept mediocrity or any songwriting clichés whatsoever; unsurprisingly, the album is nothing without the multiple listens it deserves.
Oh, and the Bowie comparisons are just as tired as they were with the last Destroyer release, as lazy as likening the Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin to a modern Pet Sounds. Sure, Bejar’s unusual voice is vaguely Bowie-esque, and his songs are indeed injected with a constant sense of shameless glam-tinged excess (memo to Kevin Barnes: this doesn’t mean goofy costumes and face paint). But it isn’t Bowie -- it's too dense, too obtuse. Yet Destroyer shares the same overblown sense of drama, separating Bejar from his initial taste of success with the infectious power-pop revivalists the New Pornographers.
Of Destroyer’s legion of loyal followers, quite a few have been on board since 2001’s Streethawk: A Seduction. I’ll admit that I didn’t take notice until Rubies, captivated by the desperate bombast typified in outbursts such as that of “European Oils”, in which the Canadian singer describes “getting it on with the hangman’s daughter” who “needs to feel at peace with her father / The fucking maniac”, right before a blistering guitar solo. From the theatrical explosions to the cryptic characterization of women (some who “are known to appreciate the elegance of an empty room”, or who “fell like a ton of bricks”), it’s all still intact. On “Shooting Rockets (From the Desk of Night’s Ape)", Bejar asks, “My dear, didn’t you hear? / A chorus is something that bears repeating”, yet spends most of the album gleefully shunning traditional song structure. Which is also nothing new for him.
Interestingly, the album begins with “Blue Flowers/Blue Flame”, its sparsest moment. The music is mostly reduced to Nicolas Bragg’s intertwining guitar riffs accenting the acoustic guitar; meanwhile, Bejar’s lyrical prowess is, as usual, both poetic and impenetrable. As to the meaning here, your guess is as good as mine, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t fascinating on its own: “A cathedral sick of the sky again says to it / ‘Oh please, not now, will you just look at the time? / It’s standing still’ / Somewhere applause falls dead on the hillside”. Bejar’s observations dim the line between fantastical and mundane... and why? Because he can.
The album’s pacing is unique, too, as Destroyer seems to have gone and compressed the album’s most rich and unforgettable songs into tracks four to eight. The sequence begins with “Foam Hands”, the Kelly Clarkson-quoting song first released in December, and perhaps the closest Destroyer will come to a ballad. The slow pace is filled with guitar layers and synthesized strings, over which Bejar seems to describe a relationship gone awry in the vaguest of terms. “True love regrets to inform you / There are certain things you must do to perceive his face in the stains on the wall”, Bejar croons, leading into a refrain of “I didn’t know what time it was at all”, possibly referring to his obliviousness at the situation. The theme of human relationships is more directly confronted on one of the album’s most gorgeous numbers, “Introducing Angels”. “Common scars brought us together”, the singer repeats, an interesting take on the uniting power of tragedy. “Beneath the light of the moon”, he continues, “It’s not too soon / Flower girl stalks the groom”.
“Shooting Rockets (From the Desk of Night’s Ape)”, at eight minutes, has enough instrumental texture and incomprehensible lyrical witticisms for a college term paper analysis, but let’s just accept that it’ll never match the experience of the song itself. Will Sheff of Okkervil River described Bejar as “pretentious in a way that makes it into a game… where we all get to pretend to be so grand,” a grandness that is absolutely epitomized by the song’s climax: “We live in darkness -- the light is a dream, you see”, cries Bejar atop the pumping organ, rendering every other song dull in comparison.
The grandness Sheff describes is all over Trouble in Dreams like a paint polish, and “The State” is the only instance in which it falls a bit flat. The attempts at cramming presumably prewritten lyrics into the jarring glam rocker is simply too clumsy to work. It’s a rare misstep, though. Ultimately, this record is proof that more of the same isn’t always an indication of artistic stagnation. After all, what exactly did Midnight Marauders add to The Low End Theory? Like the Dean Moriarty of indie rock, Destroyer’s new batch of songs are simply free-spirited and adventurous enough to somehow coalesce and “form a thread” in a surreal, distinctly Bejar way. Destroyer fans will enjoy the hell out of it now, but will still be finding new meanings and layers by the time the next Destroyer album comes along.