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Destroyer - Trouble in Dreams

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Artist: Destroyer

Album: Trouble in Dreams

Label: Merge

Review date: Mar. 14, 2008

Trouble in Dreams is nearly identical to Destroyer’s Rubies. Sure, the notes and words aren’t the same, at least not entirely, but the tone, the demeanor, the feel of the album most definitely is. Which isn’t exactly a shocking development, or at least, shouldn’t be. Most musicians walk that fractal edge between wanting to please an audience (or at least some respected peers), wanting to grow, wanting some measure of security (financial, creative, etc.) and wanting success – and, to put it bluntly, Destroyer’s Rubies accomplished all that and then some.

Bejar was universally lauded, and while few of us can speak knowledgably about what kind of effect that has on a person, it must surely raise the pressure, both internally and externally, to perpetuate that praise. Or maybe he just feels he hit on a strategy that really works. It doesn’t really matter, and psychological speculations are rather passé and pointless, anyway. The point is, repetition is at the very foundation of Trouble in Dreams, which shouldn’t be taken so much as a criticism, but as a strategy in and of itself. Dreams is the transformation of this strategy into a material work; while prior Bejar works subscribed to repetition-as-reference, Dreams is more about repetition-as-architecture.

It’s not breaking news to suggest that Bejar enjoys using references in his songs. His work is literary; the lyrics for Trouble in Dreams are even written out as short blocks of prose. Reference works in a number of ways for Destroyer across a number of thresholds (viz., between his works and other musicians, between the album and other Destroyer records, between the album and other projects featuring Bejar, as well as between whatever song is in question and works outside of the musical system). Regardless of whether there is or isn’t significance to the references, and perhaps they may be more of a macguffin for his audience (who seem to obsess over these interconnections with the rabidity of a Lost fanatic) than some deep symbolist signposts, the fact of their existence is structurally significant because it creates pathways outside the work. Each album isn’t simply a solitary entry into the Destroyer oeuvre, but rather some tile in the mosaic or thread in the pattern.

This is to say, repetition is a means of fostering an aesthetic unification for everything Bejar does. Compare this to someone like, I don’t know, the guys in Pinback who are involved in an exponential amount of side projects, all of which are disconnected from each other. This isn’t to canonize Bejar’s strategy, but rather to note that it is rather unique, a cross-corpus of work that allows the Destroyer persona to develop, the difference being between a short story and a series of novels – the former useful for making quick points, the latter allowing for something more substantial. Thus again, repetition here is mainly a literary technique used to create a singular, albeit disjointed, world in which Bejar gets to develop his narrative voice. (Note the progression from Rubies’ “Rubies” and “Looter’s Follies” to Dreams’ “Shooting Rockets” and “Leopard of Honor” – “progression” here denoting nothing more than “change,” although one can also add “more developed,” “more sure,” “more confident.”)

It can’t be incidental (although whether Bejar consciously employed it or not is up for grabs) that an artist whose art is structured by ideas of repetition, someone who is consciously and playfully messing with rock song structures – melodies, verses, choruses, etc. – would produce an album that is essentially repetition writ large. Historical and social systems (including aesthetic ones like being an artist and making music in a public arena) unfold like this, through a series of transformations in which earlier stages are incorporated into successive ones. As the system progresses – in this case, Bejar and those he makes music with and those that pay him to make music – the past bubbles up and becomes an externality.

An example for clarification: there are a number of ways to speak about this, but perhaps the best would be to talk about our own identities. Who we all are as people at this moment is a result of a series of transformations. Without fleeing too far into a digression, if one thinks about herself now, one might recognize how small patterns early on in life are now large scale structuring features of behavior. There’s no hard and fast rule for this, like the Mr. Show sketch in which Einstein reveals he’s a great man because his father touched his butthole; that is, it’s not causal, but rather that our past selves are always in us in transformed ways and that in many cases these past stages rise to the surface in unexpected fashion. This is the same process that I’m describing for Bejar.

What it means though isn’t so easily discerned. It would be premature to assign some kind of overarching significance to Trouble in Dreams until we can see where Bejar goes next, especially knowing the interconnectedness of his entire corpus. If anything, we can say the repetition functions in an ironic fashion – per usual for Bejar – at once suggesting an emotional core or a familiar chord structure, only to undercut it and push the audience even further away.

Of course, the major objection to this is that the above offers no material evidence for the assertion, and in fact it could very well be just another album of pleasant and obfuscating rock that offers nothing novel besides something to hum under your breath from time to time. Granted, the album itself can be used to support either interpretation. Even if it turns into a trend, one would still have to question whether repetition became a structuring feature and then begat a constant stream of facsimiles or whether from the beginning Bejar began to grow too comfortable in Rubies’ shoes. In the face of this, competing interpretations both with a valid basis, a better question to ask is: which understanding offers a more meaningful musical experience? Bejar may very well be cranking out albums because he doesn’t know what else to do with his life or because he likes this strategy or whatever, but that interpretation actually takes something away from the music, makes it poorer, makes it the product of exhaustion. On the other hand, a structural interpretation adds meaning to the experience, creating a continuity with Bejar’s literary project and developing an understanding of Dreams that casts it in a novel light. Not to be some Sartrean dick or shirk my critical responsibilities (my feelings should be obvious), but the choice is ultimately up to you.

By Andrew Beckerman

Other Reviews of Destroyer

This Night

Your Blues

Notorious Lightning and Other Works

Destroyer's Rubies

We'll Build Them A Golden Bridge

Streethawk: A Seduction / Thief / City of Daughters


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