Trouble in Dreams

(Merge; 2008)

By Conrad Amenta | 19 March 2008

Given that Dan Bejar’s work as Destroyer is so well respected and the opinion I’m set to express here is clearly in the minority, I’ll be as straightforward in my assessment of his Trouble in Dreams as I can: this is his tenth solo album of the same old shit. If you’ve never heard anything he’s done before then you might find the undergrad poetry he litters throughout the verses, the phonetic gibberish and la-la-las in the choruses, and throwback sub-jam band music throughout refreshing. But if you have, take this release as signal to submit to another Streethawk: A Seduction (2001) renaissance or move on. This latest does nothing to distinguish itself from a now stagnant formula that posits Destroyer’s music as a sum of Bejar’s eccentricities, though the surfeit of material he’s now released has rendered those curiosities banal and predictable. If Streethawk, like City of Daughters (1998) before it, sits on one end of the spectrum as a rare instance in which Bejar was able to reign in his imagist pomposity and musical inconsistency, here the delivery of his messily packaged insights is so unsurprising that a drinking game can only be half in his honor, the other half pointing solidly to the self-caricature Bejar’s become. As he opens the album with his characteristic Pink Floyd profundity, whining “a woman by another name is not a woman,” Trouble in Dreams may as well be about satire rotting bloated in a ditch. We’re finally presented with the notion that the best way in which to make fun of Destroyer is to do your best impression of Destroyer.

How else do you explain the horrendously and orgasmically titled “Shooting Rockets (From the Desk of Night’s Ape),” surely the most absurdly conceived and delivered song of not only Bejar’s discography but probably of the year? Its pianos echo with grandiose delay as he sings “who amongst us has left these things undone?” and “my soul keeps the night away” and “I’ve got street despair carved into my heart” to the kind of musical accompaniment that has to be heard to be fully written off, actually having the nerve to swell strings behind the kinds of melodies reserved for C grade Elton John. The song should constitute a flashpoint, and cold bucket of water in the face of those previously ensorcelled by Bejar’s nauseating nasality.

Choosing lyrics that exemplify how ridiculous these songs are is not hard; nearly any line can be picked out as a reference to how many critics have lost sight that fragmentary imagery strung together with masturbatory self-referentiality should not, as a rule, be rewarded for constituting de facto intellectualism. For the sake of argument, though, let’s go with “a comet of scars brought us together / beneath an idiot’s moon / it comes too soon / just plant tulip and watch her bloom” from the lugubriously cheesy “Introducing Angels,” in which we can imagine each “ooon” sound delivered with wizardly mytisque and paper tiger gravitas. Or, from “Leopard of Honor,” which suggests that “Jenny fell like a ton of bricks / She travels in and out of you like some shade whistling Dixie / I don’t know why / I guess I was high / Sick mansions freckle the sky / Say for Christ’s sake inhabit me.” Or, finally, when Bejar sings “Cobra-benighted lexicon / she drank away her days / It was a glaze / too supple to notoriously notice the ocean’s visage / Country fuckers! / You’ll leap the moon to sit in castles made of swooning baboon loons.” And I completely made that last one up! See? Anyone can write this bullshit.

I love the use of absurdity in music, but only when it’s prefaced by an understanding of absurdity as a political and artistic tool. Absurdity implies self-awareness and perspective, but when delivered without a hint of humor, with all the boringly predictable, ostentatious, immodest artistry for which Bejar is continuously and consistently rewarded, then it’s not absurdity at all. It’s poetry without referents; phonetics and half-formed gibberish. And, ten albums along, it’s just lazy.

Even the “themes,” should one extend the benefit of some considerable doubt to Bejar’s lyrics, belie an inherent lack of creativity in this formula. He continues to sing to his perpetual “She,” exoticizing and bestowing mysticism with all the progressive thinking of the Guess Who’s “American Woman.” Musically, the album is an assortment of meandering, incoherent arrangements, stagehands to the haughty leading man of Bejar’s lyrical sins. “Dark Leaves from a Thread” crescendos nicely, but “The State” is a sluggish blues approximation. “My Favorite Year” whooshes with jet noise effects. Even Bejar’s delivery falls drunk into the street: on “Rivers” and “Plaza Trinidad” his “dum-di-daaaaaas” get slobbery and bizarrely uncoordinated, causing the listener to find themselves more often laughing than swept up by his slurred and exaggerated inflation of meaningless monosyllables.

For too long Destroyer has earned high praise for his idiosyncrasy and for poetics supposedly manifested by an exploratory fuel. What I suggest, given the sheer weight and redundancy of his discography at this point, is that we suppose another possibility, if only for a moment: that Bejar is less the wizard than the man behind the curtain. You’ll hear that Trouble in Dreams is yet another fantasy produced of a wondrous and singular imagination. But after years and years of it, all I can hear is bad writing, plain and simple.