Bay of Pigs

(Merge; 2009)

By Alan Baban | 21 August 2009

Oh Destroyer, you lovable piece of shit. People love you, people despise you. Still, you grow that hair long. There are those here in the CMG office who think you’re a joke, but I say to them: Bah! (da-da-da). (Da-da). I’m a fan. I will continue standing in the CMG White House throwing rose petals at your desecrated portrait even as the camera pans back to reveal…holy cow! an alien mothership piloted by rock musician Dan Bejar with lasers aimed toe-for-toe at intelligent rock criticism! And even as your Airhawk obliterates our critical enterprise, I’ll turn to my fallen comrades with a shrug, a practised shrug, and be like, “Win or lose…what’s the diff-ey-rence-ence-ence?” and then they will kill me.

Because with every new Destroyer release, we’re faced with the Q.: just how do you criticise someone who’s built songs out of that crap (criticism)? Except to say maybe “I like” or “I hate”? Or “I dunno, let’s check back in ten years”? It gets better, a bit—or worse—depending on how romantic we’re willing to get about a guy who, despite the four or five genres he’s cycled through, hasn’t changed a whit. Which I think’s a great thing, obviously, ‘cos I think Dan is one talented fuck who shouldn’t ever change a whit. Ever.

A lot of people might not share that opinion, and—alright—I understand vaguely how one dude sending up an endless stream of opacity and onomatopoeic quotables could grate; that is, I do get (sort of) why people have become tired of what they see as the inanity of this enterprise, its unconcealed and very fat buffoonery and the way Dan will write a song, and then write another song, and another one, then another, just for all these songs to sound more or less like one song. I follow that. I can see why it grates. It’s just that I really like that song.

So let’s talk about the small brilliance, the real distinguishing stuff that’s too often lost in this shuffle of character and genre, leaving us as listeners to chase the cards right across the table, and over. But remember with Bejar there’s no big risk. His shift from folkster to glam-rocker to shouting drunk and ambient disco superstar is, for all intents and purposes, a big tiring joke. Take a look at that cover-art once more. Then recall This Night (2002), where Dan dropped the highly strung and enchanting curlicues of his breakthrough Streethawk: A Seduction (2001) in favour of, uh, teaching a new band to play new material as it was recorded.

This is an artist so enamoured with drawing on himself that genre may as well be a second-skin meant for flaying. Plus I’ve got this feeling that although Bejar’s honed his writerly craft over the years, more effort’s been spent on finding a musical backing nimble enough to meet his dramatic readings halfway. Some of these excursions have obviously been more successful than others: I’m a big fan of Rubies (2006) because I think on that particular record the melodies were as clear as could be and the riffs—the Riffs!—were frequent and heavy enough to carry an albumload of arrogance and withering scorn. In turn, the same combo didn’t work so well against the dream-pop copping Trouble in Dreams (2008) or (Blasphemer!) the overly fussy arrangements Frog Eyes laid on the Notorious Lightning & Other Works EP (2005). Destroyer’s always been best when the music and lyrics have been consistent and when both have been loose enough to allow for some open-ended shit in the delivery.

In effect, what I’m saying is that I think the culmination of this, or at least Dan Bejar’s coolest work yet—definitely his best foray into, uh, ambient disco—is—yeah, sha-la-la, wouldn’t you say—Bay of Pigs. Which is an EP, worth mentioning because “Bay of Pigs” the song is evidently what most people have been focusing on when there’s a whole other track here. That track is called “Ravers.” It’s an updated version of last year’s guitar-friendly “Rivers,” eschewing traditional rock backing for humming synths, zero percussion, and some other sound-effect stuff that frames Dan’s dawdling pretty nicely. If anything it’s the needed comedown after the fourteen-minute blowout of the title track.

Which: what the heck?! On “Bay of Pigs” you can tell he’s just following some drift in his head. You can tell that the good stuff here was maybe cooked up in less than an hour, and that everything else—by which I mean “the music”—was worked up in slow increments, toiled over like a bastard laugh track so that Dan would make it very clear for us when to laugh, clap, and sigh. When to like put up the devil-horns and holler, “Yayerrr Destroyer baby Destroyer!” The music here is pure prompter, small potatoes.

And about those lyrics, they’re more shoptalk, per usual. Still, we’re taken through something of a story this time, a night out. Starting with small talk, then onto ill-conceived metaphysics, to drunken ill-conceived metaphysics, up to metaphysical buffoonery, then really drunken buffoonery, and finally, of course, regret, remorse, plus an ending that cycles back onto the same mumbled “…Listen…listen” that set off the jawn fourteen minutes back.

I like to imagine that Dan, thinking his writing a sort of music, actually writes his lyrics on sheet-music. The thought makes me giddy: all that wild hair over all that sheet. Perhaps Dan’s like “Fuck staccatos, bitch princess. I am the staccato.” What would his script resemble? Does it matter? It probably doesn’t. Like a few other CMG-ers I’m of the opinion that 99% of Destroyer lyrics are made up of smoke and mirrors and any number of polysyllabic rhythmical stand-ins for our hero to inflect and trip over on his way to that state of stupid Dadaist vision that characterises his best work, some of my favourite songs—the ba-da-das and sha-la-la wouldn’t you says. What I’m saying is Destroyer lyrics are empty; there’s nothing to them, except, of course, everything, PT Barnum, Earth, the works. It’s showman shoptalk. I more love the way Dan delivers this stuff, like maybe Dylan on those Rolling Thunder Revue bootlegs: equal parts love and disgust for the ease with which he can throw out crap, shine it with his tongue and spit up quasi-profundities. I love that.

I love that “Bay of Pigs” sounds like an extended triumphant version of most things Dan’s attempted in the past, only bigger, better, and with more of a plot. I mean, yeah, we can trot out once more that phrase “ambient disco” or “drunk music” or whatever. We can realise that this is the same song, but longer; that this is the same Melody running before the same vocal Winds; that some people will definitely find that last metaphor pretentious; that whether you think the Wind is a refreshing gust or a brain-fart is up to your personal constitution. I dunno, guys. Same old lovable shit.