Made to Be Broken

From four-track pluck to orchestral ambition, Destroyer keeps busting the mold.

I'm not interested in chamber pop. I don't even know what that really means," says songwriter Dan Bejar. "If it means, like, 'Eleanor Rigby' or something, I don't really listen to that. Chamber pop kind of bugs me."

As captain of the Vancouver-based vessel Destroyer, Bejar knows a thing or two about navigating the eddies of underground pop music. Since 1995, when he put out his first solo, home-recorded cassette, and continuing through to his new and most accomplished masterpiece, Your Blues, Bejar has dodged convention as well as definition. His official full-length releases have run the gamut from four-track confessional to sprawling, guitar-tangled epic, made flesh by a shifting cast of players and instrumental arrangements that all deftly encapsulate the essence of Destroyer.

"My first CD came out in early '96, and it was just four-track stuff I had done over the preceding year. It was at a time when there was tons of four-track music out there, for better or for worse," Bejar recalls with a laugh before apologizing for the unreliability of Canadian cell phones. He's calling from a Connecticut interstate, where his tour van is currently en route to New York City, and his clear, high voice fights to cut through an ambient fog of static. "I had dropped out of school then, so I had a lot of time on my hands. I played in one band, but I was kind of like the secondary songwriter-slash-really bad rhythm guitarist. We only ever played one show.

Contemplating destruction: Dan Bejar is Destroyer.
Contemplating destruction: Dan Bejar is Destroyer.

Details

With Frog Eyes, 9 p.m. Friday, May 21, Lion's Lair, 2022 East Colfax Avenue, $8, 303-320-9200

"That experience," he continues, "was kind of the impetus for getting started with the four-track. It seemed easier to record stuff by myself than with other people. I would just use whatever was lying around to make noise with. The first Destroyer shows were me playing my songs on guitar with my roommates behind me, making a bunch of noise. They had never even heard the songs before. It was just a bunch of messing around."

Bejar's "messing around" with lo-fi home recording during its mid-'90s heyday has evolved into one of the most acclaimed, if indefinable, acts in indie rock today. After Destroyer's 1996 debut, We'll Build Them a Golden Bridge, which was predominantly a solo affair, the singer/guitarist unveiled 1998's City of Daughters, showcasing the first of several lineups of the group. Sprinkled with folksy rambling, literary airs and head-scratching song titles such as "Loves of a Gnostic," "Rereading the Marble Faun" and "I Want This Cyclops," the disc brought its creator's distinct voice to the fore. As if remembered from a bemused, lucid dream in which Leonard Cohen transforms into Robyn Hitchcock on a seaside cliff by the light of the full moon, Bejar's singing was a wispy, meandering chirp topped off with a vaguely English brogue.

As raw and immediate as City of Daughters was, though, it was already dropping hints of symphonic ambition. Intermittent bursts of horns, keyboards and 5/4 time signatures set Destroyer apart from droves of faceless Guided by Voices apostles, and the tracks' ornate chord progressions and melodies were steeped in neo-classicist songcraft. These qualities became more corporeal and clearly articulated on 2000's Thief and 2001's Streethawk: A Seduction, an ostensible homage to the grandeur of early-'70s David Bowie.

But it was This Night, Destroyer's 2002 opus, that finally started making jaws hit the floor. Aided by Bejar's peripheral membership in the New Pornographers, Vancouver's hugely popular power-pop ensemble -- not to mention a higher profile after Destroyer signed with notable indie imprint Merge Records --This Night broke through to tons of new audiences. It's easy to see why: If Phil Spector had produced Big Star's Sister Lovers, it might have sounded something like this dense, slightly disjointed, wholly glorious mess of a record. Drawing praise from nearly every critic and true fan of music who heard it, the album seemed the ultimate realization of the sound Bejar had been questing for across his previous four albums.

So where to go from there? For Bejar, the answer was a paradox: Strip things down while making them even bigger. Your Blues is an odd yet compelling detour from the arc of Destroyer's oeuvre, an experimental departure from the orthodox, live-band setup to a three-man project sculpted from glacial synthesizers, banks of digitized strings and Bejar's increasingly abstruse mode of address. Assembled using computers and MIDI technology, the record retracts the Destroyer sound into an icy carapace of abstraction even as it expands upward on a warm current of vivid imagery and sheer wonder.

"I really didn't know what I was doing," says Bejar of Your Blues. "I knew that I wanted to do a lot of stuff on the computer and that I didn't want it too sound too scaled down. But I also knew that John Collins and David Carswell -- who are two guys I've worked with over the last few years -- would be game for lots of MIDI stuff and computer editing and arranging on screen. That was kind of a conscious plan; it was really very carefully controlled."

With Carswell and Collins (a member of the New Pornographers) contributing their keyboard, sequencing and production skills, Bejar had the perfect canvas on which to daub his impressionistic portraits of crystal jets, gilded jeans, vengeful actors and jewel-encrusted roans. Largely bereft of bass or drums, the songs bob along on cymbal crashes, bubbles of brass and swells of organic grace that belie their silicon-sired origins.

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