Political Pseudo-Review for Destroyer to Sing

January 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

“I cast off these couplets in honor of the void”, sang Dan Bejar on his last masterpiece, the 2006 rock epic Destroyer’s Rubies. It was the kind of line Destroyer fans have come to expect by now from Bejar: a little bit romantic, a little bit bitter, a lotta bit self-aware — not to mention funny, wrapping up as it does a void-couplet that begins ominously, “Those who love Zeppelin will soon betray Floyd.” That line, too, is quintessential Bejar: a music-lover at heart, he peppers his tracks with namedrops (“Listening / To “Strawberry Wine” / For the hundred-and-thirty-first time…”) and lyrical easter eggs, incessantly surveying and reappraising the pop canon, all through an eye so skewed it can sometimes be hard to tell whether it’s jaundiced or simply winking at you.

On his new masterpiece, Kaputt, Bejar — assuming, of course, that these lyrics are in any way autobiographical, which is always a bit risky — seems to have adjusted his sights a bit.  “I write poetry for myself,” he informs us on “Blue Eyes”, the album’s second (and possibly best?) track; and then repeats it, maybe to drive home the point, maybe just because he wants to.  A little later in the same song, he sends off a “message in a bottle to the press”:

It said “Don’t be ashamed or disgusted with yourselves,

Don’t be ashamed or disgusted with yourselves,

Don’t be ashamed or disgusted with yourselves…”

… which I interpret as something of a preemptive strike against the album’s likely reviews: Sure, it seems to say, I might be soaked in smooth-jazz sax and chorused guitars as thick as cream cheese; but don’t you dare call me a ‘guilty pleasure’.

Of course, for some people, even some Destroyer fans, it won’t be much of a pleasure at all.  For whatever reason, the production styles at play on Kaputt — some long-disowned bastard child of yacht rock smooth and quiet-storm fierce  — are ones that have been deeply uncool, particularly with ‘indie’ music fans, for going on two decades now.  Sure, Ariel Pink’s new album breathed some life into the aesthetic, and everyone loves Steely Dan; but after the endless Oughties procession of dancing punks and grimy electroclashion, all culminating in the neon trance funhouses of Animal Collectopolis and the spooky decrepit shopping malls of Deerhuntersville, it’s easy to get sketched out when Bejar pulls up and throws open the doors to the slick leather interior of the Destroyer limousine.  This sort of thing takes some getting used to, I know; but I promise, the ride is worth it.

(His mama said he shoulda had brown eyes…)

Okay, but back to the words: do they mark a break, a new direction, as dramatic as the one taken by the music?  Bejar certainly thinks so, telling Pitchfork that “If someone couldn’t really place much of a difference between” the lyrical and vocal stylings on this album versus his last couple of efforts, “it would cast a certain ‘what the fuck am I doing?’ light on things.” So, although he cops to having never really distinguished “between what words sound like and what they mean”, there’s still something different going on here: “I didn’t really know what to make of the words I was singing even though they felt really comfortable to sing.” Which is weird, he continues, because “I usually know exactly what I’m saying at every single moment.”

A similar sentiment washes up on “Bay of Pigs”, the gazillion-minute-long ‘ambient disco’ slow-burner that preceded Kaputt‘s release and now, slightly shortened from its EP version, serves as the album’s closer:

It don’t mean a thing

It never means a thing

It don’t mean a thing

It never means a thing, it’s got that swing…

In the Pitchfork interview, Bejar goes so far as to say that he’s “lost complete interest and faith in indie rock music being a serious forum for writing […] I just gave up on it and decided I would just focus on being a singer.” His sorta-weird rationale being that song lyrics are like screenplays: no one appreciates them as pieces of writing in their own; they’re a means to an end, and as such, they only ever get evaluated retroactively, in light of the finished product.  Knowing that, why even bother about the words?

I’m not sure I would totally trust every word out of Bejar’s mouth on this one.  But if that really is true, then it’s too bad.  Bejar’s not only a great singer and songwriter, he’s also a great critic, one whose hyper-self-awareness seems to have given him equally penetrating insight into the bullshit other people traffic in.  It’s there on Destroyer’s Rubies and Trouble in Dreams, where he uses his marginal Canadian position to shoot rockets at the hypocrisy of a “wealthy American underground” whose “churches of greed” he’s had a lot of time to tour lately. (“I just noticed embarassingly recently,” he remarked back in 2006“how generally rich American hipster culture is – and not ‘rich’ as in ‘The language of Shakespeare is rich.'” See also: Bourdieu, Pierre; River, Okkervil.)  It’s there on This Night, where he drops one of my all-time top-10 lyrical truthbombs: “Try to celebrate the world / Not hurl insults at a girl” — a stinging rebuke that deserves to be painfully tattooed on the faces of a thousand emo misogynists, as a warning to future generations of sensitive songwriters who reach for their guitars when they realize it’s over.  And whatever Bejar might say, I don’t think that this critical awareness, this — to use a deeply uncool term for it — social conscience, is entirely absent from Kaputt.

Click away from the indie blogosphere for a second and check out this short interview on some artblog, where Bejar speaks on “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker”, an unusual collaboration with — you guessed it! — visual artist Kara Walker.  Walker, apparently, was struck by some Destroyer songs she listened to while working on something-or-other to do with the 20th anniversary of Merge Records, and ended up pitching Bejar the idea of a Destroyer song ‘made out of’ her own short texts, cut up and reassembled into a lyric, set to his music.  Quoth Bejar:

It gave me license to do a lot of things I wouldn’t normally write or say. There were some moments when I was getting off on an idea that could land me in hot water.  At the end of the day, someone is going to ask me what the song is about, and I’m going to say “maybe it’s about black women’s experience in America over the last 400 years,” and for me to say that is dicey. I’m not American, I’m not black, and I’m not a woman.

Leaving aside for now all questions about “getting off on” the prospect of controversy… these don’t strike me as the words of a man who feels like what he says doesn’t matter.  The chance to speak, or to sing, in someone else’s voice presents an opportunity, but also a responsibility — especially when the “someone” in question is a famous artist whose work is obsessed with the question of different voices, and of their presence or absence in the historical record.  Think how not only your interpretation, but the very meaning of the song’s chorus:

You’ve got it all

Wrong

You’ve got it all

Backwards, girl

might change depending on whether you imagine those words coming from Walker or from Bejar.  Maybe it wouldn’t, I dunno.  But my point is, there’s a kind of ethics involved in such a project; it might just come down to simple mutual respect, of the kind that’s needed for any sort of collaboration, but it’s still a frustratingly rare thing, and one worth celebrating when it pays off (as, I think, it does here).  As someone wrote, and as Bejar sings, addressing someone, at some point in the song: “This is not about you / And it’s not about me, I swear.”

What matter who's speaking, someone said what matter who's speaking...

Of course, I could have it all wrong, too.  Maybe there’s no deeper meaning behind the words; maybe it really is just about Dan Bejar, singing things he likes the sound of.  (Such a reading might find support in the album’s first video, which, unless I’m missing something, doesn’t make a gram of sense.)  Even on “Suicide Demo”, the verbal inspiration eventually dries up, leaving Bejar to repeat: “Words, words, words / Longings, longings, longings“.  In the old days he probably would’ve honored the void, celebrated the world, and Ba-ba-ba’d his way on through to the next triumphant repetition of the chorus.  Now he sounds wary, always hovering on the brink of silence, perhaps afraid of saying too much, or of saying something he shouldn’t.  When he does speak, it’s not always clear whose voice he speaks in, or what they want to say, adding a profound ambiguity to lines like “You’ve got to stop calling me ‘Honey'” — which could just as easily be “You’ve got to stop calling me, honey.” Ditto for “Suicide Demo”, where someone (Walker?) warns someone (Bejar?): “Don’t talk about the South.” But it’s too late, because Bejar’s already done it, and will do it again, on “Bay of Pigs”:

I was born in the North

But my father was from the South

Love is a political beast with jaws for a mouth

It’s not much: one striking image, hastily cast in language, with a tossed-off last line that’s clearly more about the sound and the fury than the ‘meaning’ of the words.  As for whether it violates any taboos, I’m not sure I can say.

But with that, I think, we’ve come full circle.

Almost.

P.S.:

What does Kara Walker think about the song?

I think she really likes it. […] She said she really liked it. […]

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