Three music beat writers walk into a Destroyer show at the Fillmore …
Destroyer played at the Fillmore a few weeks ago. I missed one Caltrain, caught the next one, and spent a few hours browsing bookstores and drinking Blue Moon with an old friend whose college gets January off. Then I met up with my dear friends, Tyler Dunston and Jacob Nierenberg (former and current Daily music writers, respectively) inside the dimly lit hall of the Fillmore, a concert hall in San Francisco famed for its late-60s support for counterculture and rock innovation. A poster of a naked Janis Joplin hung on the wall near the bar; the opening band, Mega Bog, strummed on their guitars before a sparse crowd. There are no seats at the Fillmore, except for the opera boxes. People (of age) drink beer and then stand on the floor beneath the giant purple chandeliers, nodding their heads rhythmically to the music as proper indie rock listeners should.
The crowd on the floor thickened as the opening band finished playing, and the roadies set up Destroyer’s instruments. Dan Bejar, the force behind the band and a prominent part of Vancouver indie supergroup the New Pornographers, emerged from backstage, his great mane of black hair silhouetted in a cloud of purple-backlit smoke. The three of us had taken bets on what song he’d open with. Tyler and Jacob thought it’d be the brooding “Sky’s Grey,” the opening track of his 2017 album “Ken.” I hoped instead for the opening tracks of his prior album, “Poison Season”: a slow string-driven intro followed by the Springsteenian saxophone decadence of “Dream Lover.”
They were right. The band began to play the brooding, ambient staccato of “Sky’s Grey,” and kept playing through next two tracks of “Ken”: “In the Morning” and the standout “Tinseltown Swimming in Blood.” The latter song is vintage Destroyer: an apocalyptic vision of a cultural oasis demolished by an act of God. It’s a theme that comes up a lot in Bejar’s catalog — compare his line, “Last night I dreamt / Vancouver dressed up in the ocean,” from the song “War on the East Coast” on the New Pornographers’ 2014 album “Brill Bruisers.”
Bejar changed track after that, playing the song “Kaputt” from his 2011 masterwork of the same name. The song is over six minutes long, dreamy, erudite and jaundiced. It’s not a pop hit in any conventional sense of the word, but it’s a masterpiece of a song and is also Destroyer’s most listened-to track on Spotify. “Step out of your toga / And into the fog, / You are a prince on the ocean,” Bejar croons, summoning a web of imagery made of classical allusion, references to the Vancouver art scene and vague lovers imagined or departed.
One of the most fun Destroyer tracks off “Ken” played a few minutes later: “Cover From the Sun.” “So what’s new, / The girl thinks you are a blond Che Guevara,” Bejar jibes, the words flowing satisfyingly off his tongue. I turned to face Tyler — who was well known by fellow members of the Stanford in Oxford spring 2017 study abroad contingent for doing his Shakespeare reading in crowded, noisy English pubs during the evening hours — before singing along to the lines, “Read Shakespeare in the bars / I think I know what you did last summer / You run for cover from the sun.”
What felt like a relatively short setlist might have been a factor of the length of most Destroyer songs or perhaps because the audience seemed less than fully engaged with the music. The encore consisted of reliable “Kaputt” hit “Poor in Love,” followed by the old Destroyer fan favorite, “European Oils.” There was an age when, at every Destroyer concert, a cult following would yell out one line in the song, drowning out Bejar to the point that he stopped singing the line altogether: “She needs to feel at ease with her father / The fucking maniac!” This time, it was only Jacob who yelled out the line, which Bejar dutifully sang before the syrupy, crunchy guitar came in to accompany him. Whether this testifies to the general lameness of an increasingly tech-dominated San Francisco or the advent of a new generation of Destroyer fans who haven’t heard 2006’s “Rubies” (the album that originally featured “European Oils”), I can’t be sure. The Fillmore is known for handing out free posters after shows, but walking out into the chilly San Francisco night we got nothing, as it turns out they only do so after sold-out shows.
Destroyer hadn’t sold out. I wonder if Dan Bejar registers a drop-off from his 2011 peak, a sense of diminishing returns that might be compounded by his being left off the latest New Pornographers album due to scheduling conflicts. The album was well reviewed in his absence. I certainly don’t think Bejar’s music has gotten any worse — “Ken” is nearly as masterful as “Kaputt” and was recognized as such by critics — but it’s hard to fight some larger sense of dropping off the radar. It seems likely to me he doesn’t altogether mind. I imagine he may enjoy writing his lyrics more than he likes performing them. There’s some perverse desire in him to see all this fame obliterated — to see Vancouver sink into the ocean. Maybe then he could write in peace. To quote “Tinseltown Swimming in Blood,” Bejar seems most at ease not selling out but “doing poet’s work, that’s all right for now.”
Contact Nick Burns at njburns ‘at’ stanford.edu.