March 9, 2006

Music Hidden Jewel

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Dan Bejar, a member of the Canadian all-star collective The New Pornographers, has been producing finely crafted albums under the name Destroyer for over ten years. Yet somehow the fickle indie kids have cast him aside in favor of radio-friendly figures A.C. Newman and Neko Case, both of whom have established careers as successful solo artists. Bejar’s relative obscurity is truly disheartening in light of the fact that he has consistently been one of the most creative figures in the Canadian music scene. However, Bejar’s avoidance of traditional structures and riff-heavy songwriting in favor of theatrical, sprawling verses and idiosyncratic, dense imagery is precisely what has placed him in direct opposition to The New Pornographers’ tight pop dynamism.

Bejar’s latest album, Destroyer’s Rubies, is generally uplifting in both mood and tempo, yet a constant preoccupation with melancholy, loss, and temporality pervades. As usual, Bejar is characteristically self-referential. Your Blues, Bejar’s last album, is referenced throughout all of Destroyer’s Rubies, as in “Your Blood” (“never had to choose your blood versus your blues”) and “Rubies” (“I wanted you. I wanted your blues.”). But somehow, Bejar’s obsession with the blues is celebratory, not defeatist.

The lyrics are both dizzyingly elliptical and firmly grounded, evidence of Bejar’s remarkable confidence as a songwriter. Bejar, like Colin Meloy of The Decemberists, creates highly literary worlds (Union Street, Rome, Rhode Island, Damascus, Toronto) inhabited by specific people (Bejar loves women’s names: Ruby, Tabitha, Candace, Christine, Molly).

Although Destroyer’s Rubies is not a concept album in a strict sense, Bejar connects various tracks with specific, concrete images. In an early standout track “European Oils,” Bejar sings “you didn’t mind mixing your beautiful European oils for a still life.” This fragile relationship between art and reality is further explored in both “Painter in Your Pocket” and “Watercolours Into the Ocean.” Destroyer’s Rubies closes with religious imagery, as seen in the jaunty piano arpeggios of “Priest’s Knees,” closely followed by “Sick Priest Learns to Last Forever.” The album is not a showcase for Bejar’s verbosity, and seemingly isolated images are actually related (the character Priest is introduced in the very first track).

The presence of art is echoed by Bejar’s increasingly acute talent for vivid, rich imagery. In the texturally dense “Looters’ Follies,” Bejar describes the sun, “a stone falling through blank space,” as the color of “jewel-encrusting roan getting in my face.” But he can be annoyingly deliberate with his language, like the in-your-face alliteration of “Girls like gazelles graze / Boys wearing bells blaze new trails in sound” in the very same track.

But it seems reductive to only consider Bejar’s use of language when he is so attentive to the relationship between form and content. “3000 Flowers” rocks with an insistent tambourine and fuzzy electric guitar, but is quirkily offset by references to the Modernist poet Ezra Pound (“100th of a ‘wet, black, bough'”) and Greek mythology (“I was Clytemnestra on a good day, dispensing wisdom to the uninitiated”).

Further bucking notions of what pop music should be, opening track “Rubies,” at close to ten minutes in length, is an epic composition that hones in on sections, only to abandon and never return. This approach is echoed in album standout “Painter in Your Pocket,” an immensely catchy (and perhaps the closest Bejar has ever come to the indie-pop format), yet sparse song that, curiously enough, begins with a beautiful, plaintive melody that is never revisited. Acoustic guitars breezily frame a simple, clear electric guitar riff as Bejar gradually builds to a final, explosive climax. With a floor tom skillfully creating an expansive vastness, Bejar presents a perfect pop song that derives success from negative rather than positive space. Form and content are in perfect harmony, as seen in the beguilingly addictive chorus that punches out short phrases like “Where did you get that line?”, only to shake the listener up with “Where did you get that penchant for destruction in the way you talk?” The noticeable extra syllables spill out of his mouth like water, but Bejar is so comfortable with his voice that the phrasing seems effortless.

Upon reflection, it’s easy to understand why Dan Bejar has not gained a larger following in comparison to his Canadian pop-centric contemporaries. But though his intellectual approach to songwriting can be alienating, the unpretentiousness and vigor that infuse the tracks on Destroyer’s Rubies is totally refreshing. With Bejar’s strange, vaguely nasal voice and frequently cryptic lyrics at the forefront, Destroyer’s Rubies may not be for everyone. But before you cast it aside for the maximum pop voltage of The New Pornographers, consider the strange and transformative powers of Destroyer.

Archived article by Natasha Pickowicz