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Destroyer - This Night

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Artist: Destroyer

Album: This Night

Label: Merge

Review date: Nov. 14, 2002

Balancing the Personal and the Epic

Vision is a rare thing. Other qualities are necessary in order to make music, and people without a strong sense of vision can still make good work. Plenty of bands lack real vision, but if they possess a modicum of talent, determination, and an ear for melody, good music is not out of their reach. Vision, however, is what separates merely good music from great music. Without that intangible sense – the drive towards original, new sounds – artists can never rise above what is around them to create something truly unique. Vision is what separates Fugazi from dozens of other adequate but ultimately forgettable hardcore bands. It’s what allowed a band like the Beatles to transcend their history and make groundbreaking albums like Sgt. Pepper’s and the White Album. Works made with a strong vision are not always pleasant or easy to listen to, and they can be quite jarring. But this is a good sign, because it means they don’t fit into our preconceived notions of what music should sound like.

Destroyer’s This Night is a strange listen at first. It has some familiar elements: dueling guitar interplay and lengthy songs a la Crazy Horse; poppy embellishments like tambourine and coo-ing back-up vocals; seventies-era, quasi-glam falsetto vocals, courtesy of singer/songwriter Daniel Bejar. But the way that these elements come together is somewhat confounding. The album doesn’t remotely sound like anything that either Neil Young or David Bowie would produce, and it doesn’t really fit into any of the current indie-rock paradigms. It is, however, compelling, even though it feels a little awkward at first. A second and a third listen begins to reveal complex, bizarre lyrics that read like stream-of-consciousness poetry, with subjects as diverse as beach invasions, poaching, and deaf Boy Scouts. There also seems to be a loose concept about “night” floating through the album, although what it “is” seems difficult to say exactly. Songs stretch far past the five-minute mark and the album blurs together. But after a few more listens, the blurring feels purposeful, and it becomes clear that however off-kilter the album might seem, it is actually incredibly complex and richly imagined. It sounds exactly like what Bejar intended. In other words, it’s a product of a very complete vision.

However confusing this vision might be to the listener, it obviously makes perfect sense to Bejar, who delivers the songs like they’re nothing more than straightforward guitar pop – which they’re not. They’re dense, moody, intricate works that borrow elements from various rock genres in order to create something vaguely familiar and utterly strange at the same time. This is due in no small part to Bejar’s florid, elliptical lyrics, which come out like someone’s dreams heard through a shortwave radio. We get little fragments, overheard conversations, mumbled ideas, eccentric musings. Poetry in rock music is a tricky undertaking, and when successful, which is almost never, it usually functions as a kind of narrative shorthand, similar to David Berman’s Silver Jews material. Daniel Bejar, on the other hand, prefers a much looser, unfinished kind of wordplay, half-conjuring instances to be finished (somewhat inadequately) by the guitars, xylophones, and bells that populate his songs. This seems less like conceptual laziness than a purposeful ambiguity, one which gains power through repeated listens. His is the kind of poetry that only begins to accrue meaning once it’s been filtered through your subconscious, rooting itself in your own personal experiences. Eventually, esoteric lines begin to take on a subjective meaning:

“Well, I followed the cries to a second-story flat and, in praise of bad luck, I threw down the homemade hat she made…Soon, the feral beast did beautify our wounds with a body that knew – you shouldn’t hurt the ones you love…unless you really want to.”

It becomes clear that Bejar is talking about nothing and everything at the same time, exploring things that are so difficult to express that you have to court absurdity to arrive at any kind of meaning. And he does both, especially in his singing, which to a passing ear could easily sound like Bobby Conn-style Bowie pastiche. But it seems that Bejar is trying to push past both emotionalism and naturalism in order to arrive at something that could best be described as a sincere affectation. And it works. In someone else’s hands, with a different delivery, the album’s lyrics would most likely fall flat. They’re strange and potent enough to demand a strange way of singing, and Bejar pulls it off beautifully.

In sonic terms, the album is something of a minor marvel, full of twisting, reverbed guitars, abstract noises, wheezing keyboards and ethereal background vocals. The generous lengths of the songs allows for several guitar breaks, piano interludes, and quiet moments of acoustic strumming. Much of the album is catchy as hell, and there are moments of real beauty peeking out from the messy sprawl: the airy fuzz-guitar solo in “Hey, Snow White”, which could best be described as gay Neil Young; the frenetic, bouncy piano and guitar crescendo of “Self Portrait With Thing”; the overblown choral singing of the album’s closer, complete with a full string section. There are also moments of pure pop bliss, recalling Bejar’s work in the New Pornographers and his earlier releases as Destroyer. “Here Comes the Night” is especially successful on this level, employing melodica and achingly romantic lyrics to nice effect. The opener, “This Night”, sets the stage both thematically and aesthetically for the album, coupling Bejar’s overamped vocals with guitars that are by turns delicate and epic.

Visions take people to strange places, and while Bejar’s is somewhat recognizable in its starting points, by its close, he has reached decidedly new territory. It’s clever to use these more familiar elements as he does, because they provide the listener with a way in, giving them something to hold onto, while Bejar twists and fucks up these references beyond recognition. He attempts here to make a record that is both sweeping and grand while at the same time maintaining an intimacy that is, at times, almost uncomfortable. For the most part, he succeeds, creating a work that is deeply personal and deeply appealing, full of the oddness, confusion, and visceral impact only music made by someone with real vision can accomplish.

By Jason Dungan

Other Reviews of Destroyer

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Notorious Lightning and Other Works

Destroyer's Rubies

We'll Build Them A Golden Bridge

Trouble in Dreams

Streethawk: A Seduction / Thief / City of Daughters


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