Notorious Lightning and Other Works
t’s gross, thorny, and altogether presumptuous to get into whether or not (and if so, how) an artist ought to reinterpret their own compositions, so let’s do it. On the one hand, it’s warming to know that an artist doesn’t take him or herself too seriously and/or is musically nimble enough to rethink songs committed (presumably, with some level of definitiveness and courage) to magnetic tape or hard disk. On the other hand, there’s one large problem (which exists to a couple of degrees, at least) to contend with: the artist is “messing with the gospel,” a pagan, idol-smashing upset of our comfort as listeners, as Frank Black reflected re: the sometimes middling karaoke-tic/sometimes brazenly heretical/sometimes nakedly refreshing Frank Black Francis which recast many of the Pixies best and most well-loved works in new stylistic molds. And let’s simply suggest the contextual mindfuck of Will Oldham’s polarizing and near-impenetrable foray into self-revision, Greatest Palace Music. Or, further down the line, it’s the first scenario again, but neutered of its dynamics: put very simply, sometimes songs were better left alone, and while it’s nice to see a kind of creative flexibility at work, such a gesture can come off as being simply irrelevant, if not approached with enough radicalism and conviction.
Despite the mammoth, underacknowledged intelligence and artistry of Dan Bejar (the fey voice behind Destroyer), Notorious Lightning and Other Works falls into that second subcategory; it a) won’t attract new fans to the songs, and b) isn’t particularly well-designed or confident. Comprised of songs from last year’s labyrinthine, theatrical mini/MIDI orchestra masterwork Your Blues as worked out with Bejar’s touring band, the sprawling Frog Eyes, the six pieces contained serve more as a document of a group working out songs whose original arrangements aren’t particularly conducive to performance rather than a true consideration of how to shake up the songs’ original impact.
That’s not to say it doesn’t have decent moments, because it does, viz the lurching beginning of “Notorious Lightning,” where Bejar seems to have given up his original (i.e. Your Blues) status in the song as a weary beatnik troubadour turned violet-robed, scepter-wielding Dungeonmaster for the voice of an erratic, reveling peasant finally seeing the toppling of a tyrant. The song creeps tensely (aided by Carey Mercer’s spidery triplet guitar-peggios) to its bursting point, a swooning, glorious waltz that evokes the romanticized populism of period Broadway musicals (think Les Miserables). Or the replacement of “The Music Lovers” slick lite-rock wisdom for squalling, ebullient adolescence (though Mercer’s wanking gets a little tedious here). But frankly, the whole wizard stance worked just fine, and most of the other arrangements on the EP range from simply paling in comparison to the original to more overtly lifeless and uninventive.
It’s important to note that the bare scaffolding of the songs are still excellent—it would take a pretty severe stroke to obscure the fact that Bejar is one of the more thoughtful and idiosyncratic songwriters in independent music. Still, it’s unfortunate to have to consider this release, in a word, unnecessary (as a result of its meandering revisionism), because an artist as talented and seemingly as concerned with theoretical notions about the climates of musical invention itself (see 2001’s brilliant meta-rock ars poetica pamphlet, Streethawk: A Seduction for tutelage) should basically know better.