Welcome to Beandon’s Musical Corner, the only place on campus for in-depth, exhaustive reviews of the latest releases in rock, jazz, experimental… and pretty much everything else. Brandon Rupp (also known by his mononymous musical title “beandon,” under which he releases music and DJs as KZSU’s Student Music Director) explores a new title and gives unfiltered feedback, regardless of the genre. Feel free to send him music; he’d love to take a look!
Destroyer’s Dan Bejar is a musician who, above all else, has been ridiculously consistent. Not complacent, mind you, as his work reveals he is quite the opposite — he has been able to take the very best elements of popular indie rock and shape them into his own singular, highly literary project. With a career that has shifted through Bowie-esque glam-rock, quick bursts of lo-fi pop à la Guided by Voices or the Magnetic Fields, and straight up yacht rock and lounge music worship, delving into Bejar’s back catalog reveals an artist always eager to challenge his own conceptions of what it means to write a “Destroyer song.” With his latest album, “Labyrinthitis,” Bejar still finds ways to develop his artistry thirteen albums in, forming one of his best works yet.
The album is, much as its title would imply, a labyrinth of melodies, witty asides, colloquial expressions and prose poetry that recalls T. S. Eliot. However, just as the true definition of the word “labyrinthitis” is “inflammation of the inner ear,” the importance is in what you hear. Instrumental dance grooves propel lyrical spoken word passages interspersed with vaguely spoke-sung segments (with even the occasional full-on melodic crooning). The overall splendor has been notched up to 11 as well, especially coming off their more restrained last album, “Have We Met.” In one song, a güiro aggressively pierces through the mix; another features pitch-shifted vocal samples that formulate a wordless melodic motif. However, all of the musical and stylistic elements packed into this dense paragraph may sound jarring and discordant for those not initiated into the cult of Bejar.
I got a chance to speak to Dan Bejar in anticipation of Destroyer’s Berkeley concert last Saturday. Dan spoke of his recent reads, including works by authors Renee Gladman and Patrick Modiano. His highly literary sensibilities came out in full force, but his love of film also shined through. When discussing Thomas Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice,” he made sure to note that “the movie turned out better.” Past the discussion of literature, he described how he grapples with playing songs that are sometimes upwards of two decades old and were written when he was in an unrecognizable headspace.
“I used to approach tackling 22-year-old songs with a certain amount of dread,” Bejar said. “But the Destroyer live band is the great equalizer. They tear everything to shreds, no matter how many awkward chord changes or strange word choices I might’ve leaned into in my 20s.”
These supposedly “awkward” or “strange” musical moments have comprised some of the most revered albums in indie music. The wide discography of Destroyer has produced at least a few classics which are well worth briefly delving into. They can hopefully serve as both an easy entry into the band for incoming listeners and also important context for the release of “Labyrinthitis.” Arguably, Bejar’s first masterpiece was the elegant art rock of “Streethawk: A Seduction,” which recalled Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust era, if it were interpreted by Walt Whitman. He continued to develop the sound and style of that record into the equally masterful “Destroyer’s Rubies,” a chamber pop spectacle that featured his best compositions to date. Next, 2010’s “Kaputt” virtually redefined the band — out with the crunchy guitars and in with synth-heavy, glossy sophisti-pop which frequently veered into easy listening territory.
A description of those three records should be enough to showcase the sheer range of styles that Bejar is able to juggle, but they don’t intend to imply the absence of a classic Destroyer sound. In fact, you could probably tell if a Destroyer track was playing in the next room over if you listened for Bejar’s trademarks. For one, his poetic lyric sheets read like words at war — clashing abstractions which, through the power of melody, are warped into bizarre earworms. One of their most straight-forward pop ditties, “Your Blood,” has the dynamic chorus of “They were alright, they were on fire / They harbored an elementary desire to do good works.”
Furthermore, Bejar’s voice — both physically and on the page — is pronounced and packed with acerbic wit. He sings in a quasi-British accent that simply becomes something the listener grows to love from the eccentric Canadian. On “Labyrinthitis,” none of these markers are absent, and Bejar instead finds new ways to develop his creative voice even further.
Take the track “June” for example. While the track begins as a Kaputt-esque dance pop number with slap bass and disco drums, his voice slowly devolves into a pitch-shifted stream-of-consciousness poem unlike any other moment from Destroyer’s discography. “Tintoretto, It’s for You” features sharp stabs of synthesizer akin to particularly aggressive 80s pop juxtaposed with elegant jazz piano chords and a militant bassline. None of these elements have ever found their way into the band’s music previously, but they don’t feel out of place. If anything, the listener is left wondering why it took them thirteen albums to enter what feels like such natural and compelling musical territory. This is, in my view, the mark of a good artist: one who can be over 25 years deep into their craft and still produce art that feels purposeful and unique.
With “Labyrinthitis,” Bejar has simply used his elaborate musical and literary vocabulary to find a new way to impress. As a result, this review cannot take the form of much more than a stressed recommendation to open your heart to all that is Destroyer. I could have instead done a song-by-song breakdown, but it would go against the point of the band in the first place. Dan Bejar makes music to revel in; music to analyze; music to fall in love with. In every sense, it’s better to just take a look for yourself.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and contains subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.