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Destroyer's Rubies

Ever play the Destroyer drinking game? The rules — found on the wires of the nerds — instruct the Destroyer fan to play an album, then take a drink when (amongst many things) there's mention of a previous album or song title, recycling or referring to lyrics of another Destroyer song, reference to or appropriation of lyrics from a song by someone else, mention of another band or musician, reference to or attack on the music scene/industry, reference to visual art or artists, mention of a specific year or century, or a character in a song quoted within the lyrics.

That the fans continue to slug one with every mention of East Van or every time a guitar solo and vocal la-la-las mirror each other is not, however, a testament to the ridiculous levels of fandom the internerd inspires. What these fabulously labyrinthine quotations and references and in-references really reveal is the incredibly intricate musical world authored by Daniel Bejar over seven records as Destroyer.

Often unfairly maligned throughout his time — in particular, in his Streethawk: A Seduction era, as some sort of blind Bowie acolyte — Bejar has finally, with Destroyer's Rubies, made an album to silence those who'd doubt his artistic worth, this seventh longplayer rather resembling the definitive Destroyer disc. Not to mention the album to get his most fanatical fans completely maggotted.

Like, simply this verse — "Look to the West!/ 'Ah, look, it's no contest' Proud Mary said as she lit the fuse./ 'I wanted you, I wanted your blues.'/ Your Blues" — from the album's titular nine-minute opening-gambit is enough to have those in the lyrical-referencing know vomiting behind the bean-bag. But hearing Bejar weave such referential/self-referential/self-reverential threads together in such a tight true love knot, and hearing him do this amongst a hot-shit set of songs in which his particular peculiarities — literary lyrical texts, hysterical falsetto-ing, camp piano, searing guitar solos — have never sounded better, nor more focused, nor more alive, nor more so utterly on fire — well, it's almost akin to watching Wong Kar-Wai's "2046," where the Hong Kong auteur makes a movie that serves as an "overview" to his dense, interconnected, shape-shifting filmography. Here, Bejar achieves that similar feeling: this is the master to which his other albums can be referenced back, the masterwork of a master artist.

It's hard to take the comparison too far — although I'm sure you could mount some case for Bejar as Wong, with his rock 'n' roll pseudonym Destroyer playing the same writer's proxy as Tony Leung Chiu-Wai does in Wong's pictures — given the differing artistic barrows they push, but it's a comparison that can be taken far enough, both being artists whose bodies of work feel like a sustained whole, whose singular works make references to other works/ideas/characters within the sustained whole, and whose improvisational artistry feels, for all the confusion it causes to "outsiders," like variations on the same theme.

Given the musical left turns Bejar artfully executed on his last two longplayers — the dense, dark, electric-guitar-addled tangle of 2002's This Night and the minimalist synth-symphonies of 2004's Your Blues — it's strange to paint him as some sort of focused artist, obsessed by motifs, ideas, colors, styles. Yet, there are such constants — his obsession with painters, for example, which stitches three straight songs ("Your Blood," "European Oils," "Looter's Follies") together early on Rubies — in his work that those who've soaked in enough Destroyer albums to be able to play that Destroyer drinking game would find it impossible not to see his output as coming from the same place, almost a singular meditation on the ideas that have forever driven him. If the arrangements on an album stand out from the other marks in his discography, it's best to think of it as a phase: Your Blues, Bejar's Blue Period.

Rubies returns to the color/form that marked Bejar's "mid period" of 2000's Thief and 2001's Streethawk: A Seduction, formative albums that, whilst lacking the consistency and conviction of his efforts for Merge, were the works in which the artist's unique aesthetic started to take true artistic shape. Yet, after a few years working with different musical media, here Bejar comes back to the purity of his artistry with renewed intention and focus, Rubies being not just the master of his universe due to the fact that its lyrics reference both Your Blues and This Night in several separate songs, and not just because its multiple references also take in "Union Street," "The Scene," and "The American Underground," and not just because we get given Mary and Ruby and Christine and Candice and Molly to join Holly and Madeleine and Melanie and Jennifer in his unending litany of lyrical women.

This is the defining Destroyer work because of its size and scope, because of its melodicism ("Painter in Your Pocket" the hottest pop song Bejar's authored yet), because of the caliber of its musical chops, and because of the shots Bejar continues to fire. Whilst we may parallel drunks or filmmakers or painters in painting a portrait of the artist, Bejar is very much a musician, and his career has almost been one long, iconoclastic revolt: against the narrow notions of what being a musician may mean as we've turned the corner into the 21st century, and against the indie conventions that get applied to a guy playing in the New Pornographers. (Drink muchly as he sings on the song "City of Daughters," found on Thief, not on City of Daughters: "Once again you have refused the New Pornographies.") Bejar has long fought for his right to make big, bold, near-ridiculous records sung in over-the-top, anthemic, voice-of-a-generation Bowie-isms; has long fought to maintain a sense of artistic independence; has long fought for art over commerce; has long tried to fight off the inevitability of sublimation hour, when someone finally writes a cheque big enough to match his price, and stifle the bluster of this heavy-metal-monikered songsmith's lyrical mettle. Whilst it's another battle in this war, Destroyer's Rubies, as Bejar's definitive disc, could be the one that finally has people trying to coerce him with cash; could be the album to take him from the realms of fanatical fandom and into the fanciful land of the crossover.

It could be, but I'd doubt it. Despite all the album's joys, such a success story doesn't go with the tale this storyteller's long been penning; he's a perpetual rogue on the perpetual road to cult-like obscurity, this slow march being not a journey for the weary, but for those fans wholly under the sway of this minstrel. So, if you're fan enough to have read this far: have another drink. Drink of the Christmas wines like it's April 27th and you've a Diamond Monger's thirst. And drink some more.

by Anthony Carew

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