In “A Dangerous Woman Up to a Point,” the seventh song on the seventh Destroyer album, Dan Bejar first sends you scurrying to the lyric sheet with the line “Hey, your friends are fucked, insofar as your friends are an ancient beast bronzed in tar!” His voice is goofy, unserviceable, and mock-portentous, so he might send you back for the “Have I told you lately that I love you?/Did I fail to mention there’s a sword hanging above you?” And then he offers, apropos of nothing, “And those who love Zeppelin will soon betray Floyd/I cast off those couplets in honor of the void.”
The void, huh? Maybe Bejar is saying that we rock consumers are a fickle bunch of bastards—and that our purchases and enthusiasms and list-making and trend-following, existentially speaking, add up to nothing. Or maybe he’s giving us pure shuck. Either way, it doesn’t really matter: As Bob Dylan proved way back in the mid-’60s, genius and bullshit are not always mutually exclusive. Indeed, if Dylan at his word-slinging best proves anything, it’s that sometimes genius and bullshit are one and the same.
Don’t get me wrong. The Vancouver-based Bejar, who supplements his Destroyer paycheck moonlighting as a member of the New Pornographers, will almost certainly never go multiplatinum, be anointed the voice of his generation, or appear in a Victoria’s Secret commercial. His voice is too weird, his music too glittering-strange a species of rambling glam-folk for mass consumption. Bejar is a queer duck and a critic’s darling, and queer duck and critic’s darling he’s likely to remain.
That’s too bad, because that seventh album, Destroyer’s Rubies, is not only his best by far, it’s also a bona fide masterpiece of opaque genius bullshit—overblown, overwrought, and all the better for it. It’s Bejar’s rare gift to be able to spring beautiful lyrical booby traps, startling non sequiturs that somehow perfectly set off all the instrumental glitz surrounding them, mined from such diverse influences as Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane–era David Bowie, Neil Young, French pop, mellow West Coast rock circa 1972 or so, and, of course, Dylan himself, acoustic and electric versions.
It helps that Bejar has surrounded himself with a crew of musicians capable of making a skeletal little song like “3000 Flowers” into one of the most propulsive rockers you’ve heard in a while. At its heart, the thing is really just a jittery beat, but it’s gussied up with squalls of six-string feedback from Bejar and lead guitarist Nicholas Bragg, the staccato piano thump of keyboardist Ted Bois, and some cool baritone sax riffage by drummer/reedist Scott Morgan. Atop the din, Bejar throws around so many strange ideas you don’t know whether you’re coming or going. Between calling himself the “last man on the scene/Fresh face on a dying scene” and slipping in something about the “wealthy American underground” weeping “at the sight of Rhode Island sinking into the sea,” Bejar manages to quote Ezra Pound, name-drop Clytemnestra, and salute the “initiates brought out in tumbrels, shat out by the dawn.”
“3000 Flowers” is, it’s true, kind of throwaway, a simple rhythm to pile sound onto. But that’s one of Rubies’ strengths: No matter how extravagant it gets, this is music built on solid, simple riffs. “Sick Priest Learns to Last Forever,” for example, opens in medias res, as it were, with a minutelong false start during which Bragg throws some meaty N. Young guitar atop Bois’ loungey electric noodling. Then, just when you’ve begun to write the whole exercise off as a studio goof, Morgan counts off and the band dives back into the riff—only the riff has gotten much, much bigger, and Bejar is flinging words, and Morgan is back honking on the sax. Four-and-a-half minutes in, Bois starts to channel a ghost of glam past in the form of one-time Bowie sideman Mike Garson, whose piano meltdown on the title track of Aladdin Sane remains the ne plus ultra of all rock-piano meltdowns, although Bois’ performance here definitely warrants an honorable mention.
Equally marvelous is “Looters’ Follies,” a slow burner of a torch tune that features what sounds like a cast of thousands “la, la, la”-ing while Bejar talk-sings about how “Cinders look back fondly upon a house on fire” before letting his voice catch, crack, and finally fly apart on the last words of the lines “No I can’t complain/On the Eastside, midwives’ lives go down the drain ’cause our babies are dying.” If there’s one thing Bejar knows how to do, it’s to suddenly stop you up short by throwing his weight into the end of a phrase. He does it again when hissing out the final two syllables of “I lifted the veil to see nature’s trickery revealed as pure shit,” and once more when wringing out the song’s parting words: “And win or lose—what’s the difference?” Remember the void? Bejar has clearly stared into it more than once.
Actually, Bejar has clearly stared into a lot of things. Or at least into a lot of art. A woman wears “her watercolours into the ocean” in “Watercolours Into the Ocean,” and the “20th century masters welcome these disasters” in “Priest’s Knees.” Yet another artistically inclined number, “European Oils” starts out like a bit of cheerfully vapid ’70s AOR but soon enough finds Bejar screaming, “Death to the murderers we’ve loved all our lives!” and going on about how “When I’m at war, I insist on slaughter and getting it on with the hangman’s daughter/She needs release/She needs to feel at peace with her father, the fucking maniac.” If there’s a message here, it’s not to be fooled by shiny surfaces or careful craftsmanship—which is quite something coming from a shiny-surfaced, carefully crafted record that also happens to have a self-referential title about gemstones.
Is that what Bejar’s really going on about? Perhaps. There are other references to jewels, too. And to the void. And one to listening to My Bloody Valentine in 1987. What does it all mean? Who knows. But the net effect of Destroyer’s Rubies—of Bejar’s lyrics, his delivery, and his band’s musical settings—is to leave you with the feeling that something’s happening, even if you don’t know what it is. It’s genius; it’s bullshit—which means that some heedless music critic will inevitably dub Bejar the new Dylan and end up looking like an idiot. Well, Bejar is the new Dylan, and I’m that idiot.CP
Destroyer performs at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 29, at the Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW. For more information, call (202) 667-7960.