Destroyer's Rubies

(Merge; 2006)

By Chet Betz | 23 February 2006

The following is how I introduced my review of Destroyer’s Streethawk for CMG’s third year anniversary-travaganza: “There’s something terrifically uplifting about that which emanates a wistful, hopeful positive ion charge of all rhyme, no reason. Streethawk: A Seduction should be the hold music for suicide hotlines.” – Me, Cokemachineglow’s Top 60 Albums of the ‘00s

I quote myself because Destroyer’s Streethawk is an opacity that also inspires instant enjoyment and involvement, and so it leaves its listeners with an endless list of thoughts and feelings about their thoughts and feelings when they listen to it, nothing have much to do with Bejar’s thoughts or feelings, those being mostly inscrutable beyond the reaction they inspire.

Quotes within quotes lead me up to the third time I have written on Destroyer for the Glow, and that’s just my way, paying homage to the Fellini of songwriters, that demi-god of intertextuality and self-reflexivity, BEJAR. All capitalization needed because Bejar is a last name, but BEJAR implicates the multiple titles held; BEJAR is not only person, but creator and creation, the object of the artistic process, lord of the house and, well, the house. It looks like an acronym because BEJAR feels like an acronym, one where every word sung seems to have a meaning trailing off on some invisible horizon, but the audience only gets to see those big letters, and so the audience wonders thusly: What the hell’s it all mean? Three’s the magic referential number here as this will be (pitifully enough) the third time that I mention School of Rock on CMG.

But remember that part when the kid who wants to be Verlaine starts playing his song for Jack Black, and he sings the lyric, “Rock is the reason, rock is the rhyme”? And, you know, it’s entirely too wise for a ten year-old. But Black, rock-giddy ape that he is, throws that away and suggests, “Rock got no reason, rock got no rhyme.” It seems a faux-dichotomy, but that’s essentially the divide between Destroyer’s Rubies and the past successes of BEJAR. The music itself is what structured “The Bad Arts” into something that “rocked,” moving from quiet acoustic opening to bass groove to melodic refrain revisited in ways more and more powerful. In the end, the music was never counter-intuitive to theories of build or dynamic, no matter how much it shredded through music academia’s flab to get to the heart of the theories in its own unique way. That’s not to suggest that BEJAR carefully measured itself out, meniscus dipping precisely to the desired milliliter mark, but only to acknowledge that very few details undermined the impact of what BEJAR was doing. Shit was potent.

The opening and title track of Rubies is everything that’s wrong and right with the album it announces, in “just” 9 ½ minutes. Electric chord chunks bed BEJAR’s mewling about “dueling cyclones” and “jackknives,” and then BEJAR’s running through the first verse, checking himself into a hotel, and the listener discovers that the messy opening is the foundation for the chorus, where BEJAR prattles on with naught but la’s. The music ebbs, the climax is foreshadowed a third of the way into the track, but as that chorus movement grows in heft and pomposity, the emptiness of BEJAR’s chant becomes a greater frustration. The electric guitar echoes BEJAR’s second wordless vocal line, but before the promised peak’s ever breached, the swell prematurely collapses into a three minute denouement. Here, BEJAR quite deliberately minces about with expectation, but he does so at the expense of the song, his affectations muddling the music’s effect. Frivolous skirting gone amok, every bloody “la” sits on the ear and the mind like so much blank weight, only to be followed by countless more in “European Oils” and “Looters’ Follies” and “A Dangerous Woman” and “Priest’s Knees” and on and on, until BEJAR’s soft jazz scat stretches out into infinity, and goddamn my eyes, those aren’t appreciative tears swinging off the lashes. Boombox lifted, Cusack will woo with Destroyer’s Rubies in the sequel Say Nothing.

It’s not the least bit surprising that it’s come to this. For, while there is poignancy in Marcello’s Guido Anselmi daydreaming and then reading that daydream’s critique, the art’s subject is not so much the art itself as the hope of the art. With BEJAR the point has finally come where so much of what he’s saying is about what he’s saying about what he said, that it’s like watching BEJAR give himself white elephants, rewrap them, and give them again to himself. Examples? Rubies is a locust swarm of them, and I’d rather just link to the excellent, reverent dissection by Carl Wilson over at (a chaser of irreverence included with the drinking game). But, like, just count how many times “your blues” pops up. The thing is, BEJAR’s now so immersed in his own conventions and jargon, his continuous deconstruction/reconstruction of his language is beginning to play out as an unwitting Destroyer parody by Destroyer. Watching Godfather III or Casino, works hallmarked by singularity of craft that fashioned cinema classics out of the same cloth, one feels the films bedraggled with flaws born of vision on auto-pilot, redundancies and simplifications reducing auteurism to a bag of dirty tricks, a set of crutches.

There’s still a lot of good shit in Godfather III and Casino, though. And, as postmodernly exhausted a comment as BEJAR makes with those la’s, he can’t completely escape his own strength; the arrangements on Rubies are lush, lacquered and shot through with inspiration’s light. I’m not going to deny the straight up, “English Music”-esque perfection of what that piano and guitar are doing together on “Your Blood” (which is pretty much perfection in every other way, too), nor how that same sort of great interplay between keys and frets carries “European Oils,” nor the moonlit stream mixed of the sawed strings and distant vibes on “Painter in Your Pocket.” I’m not going to front on the manner in which “Looters’ Follies” replaces descending ivory echoes with electric trills, nor the Spiral Stairs scrawling of “3000 Flowers,” not going to pretend that I can listen to “A Dangerous Woman Up to a Point” without thinking of a favorite Dylan song before those fucking la’s become the “fucking horror” that BEJAR calls something else—what exactly that something else is, I’m sure I’ll never know.

And, even then, I can’t think that BEJAR that doesn’t say a novella’s worth of cleverly beautiful and intricately interconnected nothings on his Rubies. Can’t even think that.

But all the literary layers here are a cast of dead skin that BEJAR’s never sloughed off, and the more it accumulates, the more comfortable BEJAR seems in it and its idiosyncrasy. Some loose-ass analysis, sure, but let me try to broadly encompass what it is that makes Rubies a minor disappointment for someone who wholeheartedly believes that Destroyer’s one of the good guys. The degree of separation between this and my much beloved Streethawk initially seems insignificant, but I feel like Streethawk’s when BEJAR first fully established his internal dream logic, and that nascent poetry was an exciting thing to sense coming just barely through the speakers. And BEJAR seemed just as excited in the delivery of it. The gaudy excess of This Night and the MIDI-wash of Your Blues were BEJAR riding the razor’s edge, teetering over a pit, but bravely teetering all the same. And back before Streethawk, on albums like Thief and City of Daughter, BEJAR busied himself with becoming an incredible songwriter. Several reviews have already commented that Rubies is BEJAR collecting his one-of-a-kind, progressive back catalogue and refining it into an accessible, album-of-the-year contender. To many, that’s a very welcome thing, and rightly enough. To me, the result is one of BEJAR’s most accomplished (and self-studied) albums, but it’s also one of his least vital.