f you haven’t been following the career of Destroyer’s Dan Bejar, you’ve been missing out on one of the most intriguing musical voices of our time. His development over the course of his past four albums (plus one with indie supergroup the New Pornographers) has been nothing short of amazing, culminating with last year’s phenomenal (and unfairly underappreciated) Streethawk: A Seduction, an oblique critique of the music industry decked out with some great songwriting and head-spinning arrangements.
The follow-up, This Night, is Bejar’s fifth album as Destroyer, and represents the logical next step in his continual evolution from shambling lo-fi troubadour to grandiose purveyor of complex, well-crafted rock. An epic, highly textured work, This Night builds on the Bowiesque flourishes of Streethawk, creating even more dense and layered constructions and more complex song structures, bolstered by a crisp production sound.
On first listen, this adds up to a daunting and challenging album. Nothing here is as immediately gratifying as Streethawk’s “English Music” or “The Very Modern Dance.” Rather, it takes time and effort to sift through all the layers here, to separate the sounds and let it just sink in—and at over an hour long, it’s not a record that always makes the task easy on the listener. Fortunately, Destroyer yields some great rewards for those who put in that effort.
The joyous “Here Comes the Night” soars and glides on top of breezy, driving drumming and an undercurrent of tricky guitars (not to mention the plaintive synthesizer melody that pops up between verses). And see if you don’t get chills when Bejar builds tension by repeating the word “thief” with increasing urgency before dissipating all worries with a gorgeous chorus of ba-ba-ba’s.
The entire album is characterized by such careful placement of sonic details. Bejar is never content to write a simple song or record with a typical guitar-bass-drums line-up. Every track is packed tightly with subtle touches that rise to the surface the more you listen, but the clean mix keeps things from becoming muddy or confused. On “Crystal Country,” the striking guitar lead rightfully attracts most of the attention, but the song’s rich backdrop, like the landscape of a well-made movie, is populated by such intriguing extras as shakers and subtle piano notes.
Many times throughout the album, it becomes apparent that Bejar must have intended for this to be listened to on headphones. “The Chosen Few,” with its rollicking, Spanish-inflected guitar and distant percussion crashes, provides a special treat by phasing subtly different vocal lines to each channel, creating the impression that two different Bejars are singing at you from opposite directions. Additionally, the melodramatic “Trembling Peacock” has a speaker-shifting martial rhythm accented by melancholy string textures.
“Students Carve Hearts Out of Coal”—which in a more fair world would be the disc’s hit single—is buoyed by melodic, jittery guitars and Bejar’s hushed vocals. The drums are applied for atmosphere, creating a background packed with tinkling cymbals and drum fills.
The temptation in writing about this album, as you can probably tell, is to keep picking out such miniscule sonic fragments. I want to tell you all about that quivering organ melody that hovers around my head during “I Have Seen a Light,” and the way that song suddenly explodes into a satisfying guitar-rock anthem towards the end. I want to point out the almost-metal chugging bass that shows up for barely a few seconds in “Makin’ Angels.” I want to convince you of the beauty of the snaps at the beginning of the swinging “The Night Moves,” which provides the album’s fitting coda in the form of an extended chaotic rave-up filled with chanted la-la-la’s.
It’s all these little details that actually make up the meat of the album. Even if it didn’t all come together, this would still be a beautiful mess of sounds, but the fact is that it does come together into a powerful, cohesive whole. From start to finish, this is some of Destroyer’s finest work—varied, emotional, intelligent, artistic, and full of secrets that only reveal themselves slowly, one at a time, leading you on like a treasure map through this magical musical island.
Reviewed by: Ed Howard
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01