Destroyer's Rubies

(Merge; 2006)

By Aaron Newell, who loves his parents very much | 10 March 2006

My Mom once cried when she caught me watching the video to the Roots’ “What They Do.” Notice I say “caught,” for context, since in most families the watching of music videos is not prohibited under penalty of weeping-parent guilt trip. I was busy minding my own business, laughing at the video-dancer’s butt-cramp. Mom, however, mistook my laughter for the lustful manic cackles of a virile and virally-insatiable testosteroned boner-bound teenage male. Truth is I was drunk and waiting for some friends to come over so I could continue getting drunk, except in the woods. At this precise moment, with furry-stars aligned, the video bordered on funny – worthy of a giggle, surely. But Mom cried because she figured rap music + bikini-babe + butt + chuckles = she failed as mother, son obviously a sexual deviant. All she really needed to do was keep track of Dad’s beer in the fridge and the problem would have solved itself.

Once, on my way to a tennis lesson, I was playing Milli Vanilli’s album (Fab R.I.P.) (or, maybe, Rob R.I.P., sorry guys) and the song “All or Nothing” came on. This song featured the line “All or Nothing / What’s it gonna be / something’s gotta show / when you’re lying under me.” After years of scrutiny, I have determined that this song is about a man who does not like it when a girl with whom he is undergoing a period of courting refuses to fornicate with him. He finds this inconvenient, perhaps frustrating, almost to the point where he threatens to jeopardize the entire relationship by breaking up with her, and thereby being forced to return her dowry. In an unappreciated act of behavioural music criticism, Mom threw my tape out of the car window. In an unappreciated act of fitting, karmic music criticism, the cassette died under the wheel of a tailgating Renault Le Car with no muffler.

My inner (still kidding myself) music nerd has had some struggles to this point, you could say. I couldn’t very well explain the Public Enemy bomber jacket or the Sex and Violence cover art. I never played Mariah Carey for fear of my mind being read. Still, there have been times when I’ve done well with pärentmœzik, just once, with My Morning Jacket’s It Still Moves, only. I thought Iron and Wine would be safe until Sam Beam finally sang something remotely smutty on Woman King with his “We were born to fuck each other one way or another” line. I had just e-mailed the album to Dad as “dinner music.” Roughly 21 minutes and 13 seconds later I called him up, anxiously stammering over my intended words “DON’T PLAY TRACK SIX WE WILL NEVER BE ABLE TO LISTEN TO MUSIC AGAIN” when he pre-empted my expressed concern, answering the phone with a meek “Too late.” In the background I could hear the acetic sound of tissues being pulled, and sniffles, and a CDR, cutting through the tension in the air, on its way out the window.

There is obviously a generation gap prevalent in my very-musically-inclined family. And for all of my mother’s memorizing the lyrics to each vittle of Rod Stewart’s early work, and for all of the pictures of Bruce Springsteen’s butt that decorate my family’s record collection, and especially for all of the times that listening to Dire Straits also meant that Knopfler’s millionaire “faggot” was to be explained away as “a cigarette, in old English” (“But Dad, how does a cigarette earn money?” I would ask, fearlessly dismantling Freud even as an 8 year old), I still got brung-up-proper for rapping-too-loud-in-the-mirror to A Tribe Called Quest’s “What?” (“What is a poet? / all balls / no cock”). I could not pass this off as Q-Tip’s invocation of Chicken George’s plight as a cockfighter as portrayed by significant African American writer Alex Haley in his historically-valuable and canonical literary work Roots, despite my best efforts. Invocations of Steve Biko and USC open mic nights also fell on deaf ears.

I’ve moved out, recently. I can now listen to what I want, in open air, except when I’m on the phone to my parents, or someone they may know, or when they’re thinking about me. I’ve been using this new freedom to explore my own tendencies – poking my head out from under the umbrella of punitive scorn, and discovering a few things about being a kid. One thing I’ve realized is that it’s important not to give up on your favourite bad words if there’s a little something more to them than shock value. Given the right circumstances and presentation, even the most sensitive of parental constitutions might allow for some parental advisory-style content. This, if you couldn’t tell, is one such story.

To set the stage a little more (and please don’t get the impression that I’m nineteen, it’s much worse than that): if I was nineteen, and played for my parents an album that contained such muddy obloquy as “She needs release, she needs to feel at peace with her father, the fucking maniac,” and “Why didn’t we stop fucking around, you girls like gazelles, raise boys wearing bells, blaze new trails in the South,” and “Hey your friends are fucked insofar as your friends are an ancient beast” it would have been strictly The Safe Sounds of Catholicism: Christmastime! all year round, and maybe Zamfir on weekends, forever.

This past holiday season was different, however. I visited my folks for three weeks, staying in a room with a stereo that could not push “1” on the volume dial without the rattling of the speakers drowning out the music supposedly emitted therefrom. The town being “comatose” at its most caffeinated, the local radio station, singular, wasn’t always cranking out Baltimore Club, and while some of the stuff it played sounded like Cat Power’s new stuff, it wasn’t. This left me with few opportunities for new music intake. We did, however, have sightseeing to do. This meant long drives, which meant a required amount of respite from the radio. David Gray was safe. The communal My Morning Jacket, Sam Beam pre-Woman King, and M Ward cd’s were all almost see-through from overplay. It’s impossible to enjoy the Afro Cuban All-Stars when it’s cloudy, and that just about did it for the agreeable parts of Dad’s collection. My thoughts about my own cd wallet included “Well, We Got it For Cheap Vol. II has some well-known beats on it” and “I wonder if, to a Billy Joel fan, Spencer Krug or Thom Yorke has a more conventional voice.”

My mail was being forwarded from home. Destroyer’s Rubies showed up, after I begged for it. A literate, sometimes-traditional-rock-based Canadian connoisseur of drinking alcoholic things fit the loaded family sedan better than the Re-Up Gang. In anticipation of Rubies, and the possibility of reviewing it or writing a 6-page blog entry that mentioned it, I had recently purchased everything else in the Destroyer catalogue, omitting his first-ever recording Golden Bridge, not quite ready to look up the man’s skirt just yet. I was, however, ready for sparse folk-rock and choked yelps (Thief, City of Daughters), and possibly some cheesey midi synth overglaze (Your Blues), and hopefully borderline pub-rock that featured huge, sometimes impromptu, sparkling guitar solos (Streethawk, This Night), and definitely clay-ball lyrics that could arguably be on the subject of either 1) past lovers, or 2) the music industry, or 3) popular perception of music as art, or 4) Destroyer, or 5) all four, at the same time, or 6) absolutely nothing at all, depending on how my day was going before listening (Take Your Pick).

Dad and I were both desperate for some possibly-suitable new music. We cracked open my mail, our family outing was being soundtracked by Bejar before I could say “lyric sheet.”

Now, it’s time for some CMG context. Chet reviewed Rubies for us. Scott asked me to, and boy did I want to, but I balked, sort of choked, because there’s a shitload of people out there writing about Bejar, inventing drinking games in his honour, interpreting his words, generally being annoying shits about it. This is no different. Probably it’s worse. It took me about two weeks to decide how to present this album, all the while reading too much Sedaris, and then, once I had finally settled on the least-bad idea – tough decision, tight race – my laptop crashed, kind of like “I want no part of this.” But Scott feels like I do about this record, has the same dedication to it, which doesn’t happen too often, and therefore suggested that I do a counterpoint, because “It’s just wrong to have this album rated so low.” So while we officially have 73 as our “grade” for Rubies, average that out with something like a 92. I like Chet a lot, he’s a great, tolerant guy, can explain Wolf Parade, looks good as a zombie, etc., but cokemachineglow not signifying that this album is something that will be adored by those precious people who love music so much that they hate 95% of it, well, that makes me pissy and spiteful.

Which are words that I cannot use in front of my parents. Even “spite,” as it falls under my Mom’s list of supplementary deadly sins.

Ever try to fake being asleep, but you can’t, because you’re flinching and going “UH” and “GA” involuntarily because one of your favourite songwriters is cussing his curly hair straight while your folks digest every word of it? Or perhaps you’re a daring, proactive devil child, tensely anticipating the word “fuck” with more precision than a Super Bowl halftime broadcast delay, blurting things like “HEYTHERELOOKATTHEPRICEOFGASATTHATPLACE BOYDOESWARSTINK” seconds too late. Or have you ever faked choking on nothing? These are all ineffective, embarrassingly-obvious tactics for drowning out a cursing stereo from the back seat of a car.

Now, I generally try to reserve turning blue for special occasions like getting dunked in a swimming pool or singing along with Emperor X. If I can avoid bursting blood vessels in my eyes, I will do so. But I will hack and wheeze on purpose if it will save me from getting thrown out of the sunroof. Imagine, then, my mixed and conflicted feelings, my own emotional Gwen Stefani outfit of disappointment and astonishment when, despite Bejar belting out baddies in a song called “European Oils” of all things, my mother, Puritan Pop Priestess, She Who Believes that Rod Stewart was All About the Cuddling, was listening intently, interestedly, calmly, her personal censorship sensories napping through “She needs relief, she needs to feel at peace with her father – the fucking maniac,” and I was thankfully not ejected from the car, under the wheels of a dying Renault, or, worse, disowned, as that would have been very embarrassing for a twenty-something during Christmas, with my girlfriend in the seat next to me.

Who, incidentally, being fully aware of how special it was for me not to be parentally divorced on the spot at this time, did a really cute “wow” thing with her eyebrows right after Bejar sullied our earholes.

And things remained calm, serene even, idle chit chat filling the gaps between songs, the entire car hushing promptly with each melodic hint at another fresh, furtive carol. Danny’s nimble, sailing guitar solos and plaintive organ complements and twinkling keys and soothesaid abstractions seemed as breathlessly anticipated by my priggish progenitors as his “Shadowy figures babbling on about typical rural shit” and “pure shit from which nothing ever rose” and, of course, his fucked friends as ancient beasts + fucked girls like gazelles. I began to daydream suitable conversations that might follow the Rubies listening: “Aaron, where is this talented young lady from?” “He’s from British Columbia, Mom, where I get all that pot – wanna buy some?” “Yes, how kind!.” I bailed on that, of course, choosing to push my luck in other domains: we made it through the entire album twice (in Argos voice).

Now, I have my theories on how this was possible. And the fact that I’m here to tell this story is proof that Mr. Betz is wrong in his estimation of Destroyer’s Rubies when he wicks on about “frustration” at “heft” and “pomposity” and “the emptiness” of Bejar’s semanticless la’s on “Rubies” and “European Oils” and “Looters’ Follies” and “A Dangerous Woman” and “Priest’s Knees” and “on and on” and “73%.” Complaining that “there’s no words to this Destroyer chorus!” is the equivalent of chastising a soloing guitar for not having teeth and a tongue, or asking James Brown to elocute in iambic pentameter. No one can sing a wink like Dan Bejar, and just as Spencer Krug can sing “la” and convey the guilt in an entire generation’s gluttony, and Kelis can sing “la” and cause a physiological reaction, and Colin Meloy can sing “la” and convey what’s inside a wasted mind’s desire for a decent glass of shiraz, and Ashlee Simpson can sing “la” and convey “bone” (verb), and the Delfonics will spell it out and say it means “I love you,” so can Bejar use the context of his song to cause the listener to wonder about how his room at the castle paid for itself on “Rubies,” or to poke fun at his character’s own bar-leaning lament on “European Oils,” or to convey a chorus of the good ‘ol boys supporting one of their own as he spins off a drunk rant on “Looter’s Follies,” or to convey the extent of his carefree escapism on “Priest’s Knees,” or to convey the absolute nothingness of grandiose “life” statements – especially those sung by Michael Stipe – on “Watercolours into the Ocean,” which is arguably about the dilution of popular music in the greater cumulative pool of successive eras of popular art, and how almost everything eventually bleeds together anyway, despite the confluence of unique voices in any one era, until all you get is one big wet blanket statement that’s made up of parts indistinguishable one from the other (like, for example, how “la’s” look on paper), which, in turn, encourages the listener to wring each piece of art for all it’s worth before it melts away into the abyss, like, I dunno, a tall ship made of snow, invading the sun, maybe.

I’m quite satisfied with “la.” Especially when “la” is accompanied by a rejuvenated Neil Young “Down By the River” guitar lick (“Sick Priest”), or when sung in road-worn Beatles harmonies, or complemented with beautifully fleshed-out, but rough-edged, pub-rock instrumentation not unlike Rod’s better years (“Your Blood”), or when featuring shimmering soloed guitar work that might remind one’s folks of their favourite Dire Straits moments, all smeared over with a ratpack swagger sung through the nose, and as if that would cause severe tension and irritability, which the vocalist would barely be just not slick enough to conceal. In that context, “la” works. As do the “f” and “s” words, because, surrounded and sung by intriguing characters in songs that feature ancient, beautifully-structured melodies that struggle out from the back of the mass conscious’ mind, the potential for offence disappears under the pleasantness of nostalgia. And Bejar sells this, repackaged with a gloss of eccentric abstraction, decorated with tangential jam sequences, multiple refrains scattered throughout each track, and enough consistency in symbol and imagery to persuade the poetry seekers that there’s a coherent theme to be divined. He’s the difference between a used car salesman and a dealer of refurbished antiques.

Now, as is evidenced by the foregoing shitty list of comparisons – and please note that I’m not limiting the album to any particular touchstones, I’m just suggesting that it has a “back then” feel, overall – Destroyer’s Rubies evinces an awareness of a feeling that “I’ve heard something like this before, and really enjoyed it” while denying the listener enough material specifics to follow-up with “It was on this record, recorded by this band, which I listened to when I was this old” (unless, of course, you sit down and think about that for two weeks…). Rubies conjures AM fuzz and plays with fuzzy memory. And that’s the fun, but it’s also a comment on the canon it invokes. Bejar’s arrangements highlight how disparate elements of rock “history” can easily bleed into each other when faced with a pop go-forward basis, and how there’s always a little stale in every fresh sound, which is full-on Arts Degree cliché, given. But the record differentiates itself by flirting with the dark side of the “culture soundtrack,” straddling that line, drawing attention to the deep, dry rut on its other side. The charm is that it avoids falling in by keeping the rut as pretty as possible through gorgeous melody, playful instrumentation, humble bluster, all tricks learned in that very same trench. And this still wouldn’t be enough if it weren’t for Bejar’s perpetual wink, his continuous recall of certain symbols and lines, his own personal set of pens-that-look-like-swords-that-look-like-cigars. He juggles them all, always in total control, never stabbing, slicing, or burning himself, and telling us all about it as he’s going, and moving on: “…but leave I must, as gratifying as this dust was…” (“Rubies”). Of course that’s a reference to a record jacket, I’m sure of it.

To further wit: “Watercolours Into the Ocean,” the voice of which leads by example with these lines: “Listening to Strawberry Wine for the 131st time / it was 1987 / it was Spring / Now it’s 1987 all the time.” This is Deana Carter’s “Strawberry Wine,” right? Of course not, it’s Pat Benatar’s. Or, more likely, the The Band. Or My Bloody Valentine’s Strawberry Wine ep. Definitely not Ryan Adams, hopefully. Regardless, if you let this verse be as figurative as it wants to be, you come to the conclusion that it’s all of the above, and then some, forever. On Rubies, a “song” is not a specific set of words and notes and voices and instruments conveying them, a song is a melting pot of all that’s come before it, and a foreshadow of what’s coming next. Bejar’s reference to the multifaceted words “Strawberry Wine,” with or without italics, dares the listener to pick an influence from the pot, and proceed from there, stuck to an assigned connotation (which is the precise moment that it becomes “1987 all the time…”). For all we know, the voice in the song is drunk on a bottle of the ‘literal’ stuff, out of habit, for the nth time, and following its voices down memory lane. But that’s not as fun as playing fish-for-your-favourite-band, which is the game that each of the songs on Rubies begs the listener to play, once “Watercolours into the Ocean” drops the hint.

The stimulus of all classic rock, all at once, might translate simply into “Bowie” for Bowie enthusiasts (which is Bejar’s sideshow tent, no doubt), but here’s a different spin: Rubies sounds like a classic rock album not only by sounding like a lot of classic rock albums, but by sounding like them all, all at once, without giving up any one single ghost. The trick lies in the carefully-carved rough edges, the melodies and harmonies that recall past favourites, but that never supplant their voices for its own, keeping the curtain pulled tight across the 60’s and 70’s, letting in enough light to tease with silhouettes only (see if you can spot the outline of Elton John’s giant, starry-eyed sunglasses). And that’s a great trick. And yeah the record sprawls and gets actively disorganized in parts, and yeah it’s a big, ugly hat made of all the other hats that Bejar has tried on, but hey, Chet, that’s a new hat too, right? If you want to discuss self-parody through headwear then I’ll talk Busta Rhymes with you any day. But I don’t see it here. Bejar references himself as much as other songwriters – in lyrics and arrangement and delivery and melody alike, maybe both consciously and not, depending on the lick. But instead of numbering the dots, he just dumps them onto the paper, leaving us to find a discernable form. I’m not trying to mix metaphors, but Scott calls it “writing in inkblots,” and we all know what those are used for. But try turning it around sometime, ask “I wonder what these says about old Rorschach?” You ever think he was tempted to sign one of those things? Call it a Pollock? Anyone can throw paint on a canvas, explain the hell out of it later, or maybe even leave that to someone else, right? You still have to pick your colours first, no matter what.

So this Christmas, in the middle of Destroyer’s Rubies’ car stereo spin number two, when Mom said “This sounds a lot like a lot of stuff I like, is it an old album?” and I said “No, it’s from the future” and she said “Oh, the website – but why would you like this? It’s not rap” and I said “The guy has set himself up to be the type of songwriter that probably sings about nothing at all, but people still obsess about the “profound” (fingers making rabbit ear shapes) meaning of his stuff, and the interconnections between his songs, and albums, and stories, and plus it reminds me of when I was 8 and you and Dad would play records in our basement” and she said “Yeah, me too, except a lot of those records weren’t quite as …, …, …poetic, I guess” and I almost said “I dunno, I mean, “Hot Legs” lasted, right?” but didn’t. When that conversation happened, during “3000 Flowers,” around the time when Dad commented “The singer guy just said ‘Hey that’s good’ to his band during a really nice part of the song, like Ray Charles did sometimes, except he had everyone in the studio with him all at once” and all I could think about was how that little “live” moment got recorded into a “studio album,” and will stand out as a “unique” moment in the record for that one reason, and maybe might be the most personal thing that Bejar has ever recorded, but maybe not, we’d have to show him ink blots in order to find out, I got really confused about how nostalgia can smooth over sensitive spots (even making curse words ok for a bit). And how both remembering and forgetting old music can make new music better, and how having your hand held throughout an entire album is equal parts pushing and pulling, and how all of that bleeds together, risking to make no sense, unless you do actually push for your share of the record, and how that can be an excuse, or a challenge, depending on the audience.