Your Blues

(Merge; 2004)

By Scott Reid | 9 March 2004

Since recording his first record as Destroyer in 1996 with the almost impenetrably lo-fi We’ll Build Them a Golden Bridge, Dan Bejar has taken one frustrating turn after another, incorporating a significantly new approach to his music with each subsequent album. City of Daughters, the sophomore effort and his first masterpiece, was a natural, albeit far more enjoyable and consistent, progression from Bridge, but Thief would mark his first movement into more complex structures and grandiose pop arrangements. By the time Streethawk would roll around in 2001, he’d seemingly perfected his craft, leaving the lo-fi approach behind him; "it’s just the golden bridge I’m burning," he exclaimed with a sly nod on one of the record’s best tracks, "The Very Modern Dance;" "this fire is the real gold." And with that, we had the first major transformation of Destroyer.

Just over a year later, This Night took Bejar’s imagery of burning bridges literally; ridding himself of the band he’d worked with for his previous two records, he took off to Montreal from his native Vancouver and, with a completely new group in tow, transformed Destroyer into a celebration of messy, glam-folk excess. For those accustomed to his previous approaches, even as recent as Streethawk, it was a challenging listen and one certainly not universally rewarding. Though some of us took to the new direction with great fervor (like myself, who thought its length was more than justified by the material), it exists as his most divisive release to date, even if a number of its songs ("Here Comes the Night," "Goddess of Drought," "Crystal Country" and "Students Carve Hearts Out of Coal") stand confidently amongst his best.

Your Blues, arriving a year and a half later, finds Bejar taking yet another confusing turn; he has returned to Vancouver, bypassed the vein of excess that infected This Night and has now apparently entered some sort of, uh, fantasy land. With production help from long-time collaborators JC/DC, it utilizies layers of keyboards and arrangements straight out of lost soundtracks to early NES role-playing games. Instead of hiring musicians to play the actual instruments, like the "flute" throughout "It’s Gonna Take An Airplane," they’ve opted instead for spurious synth equivalents. It’s like an old friend that returns from a short trip wearing neon green hot pants and those party animal shirts with a tropical backdrop; you’re not sure if he thinks it actually suits him or if he’s suddenly devoted his life to the annoying art of irony.

So yeah, the cheese gets awfully thick, but unlike most other groups purposely pushing the boundaries of bad taste in the past few years, Dan Bejar remembers to at least bring along some great songs. Really, in only two cases—"The Music Lovers" and "From Oakland to Warsaw"—do the production values parasitically undermine the songwriting underneath. "The Music Lovers" is especially frustrating; in its original release as a Sub Pop single in 2000, it was stunning (its B-side, "The Spirit of Giving," is also noteworthy) and is just barely passable here, robbed of almost all percussion and drowned in an "I Just Died in Your Arms Tonight"/‘80s synth arrangement—used more stubbornly here than on most any other track.

Thankfully, not all songs sound as awkward. "Notorious Lightning" opens the album with a lyrically dense, immediate "Destroyer’s the Temple"-style acoustic attack, and though the synths come in hard and fast about half way through, Bejar manages to work his way around it—the explosive ending, which finds Bejar screaming its reprise, "and someone’s got to fall / before someone goes free," being one of the album’s more memorable moments. "It’s Gonna Take An Airplane" and "An Actor’s Revenge" flesh out the predictably strong first side; "Airplane" is terrifically laid back and adorned with lyrics far less obtuse than his verbose hit-and-miss This Night affairs. "Actor’s Revenge," following in the footsteps of his ba-ba-ba style choruses like This Night‘s "Holly Going Lightly"—used to even greater effect on the album’s strongest cut, the incredible "New Ways of Living"—manages to make its ridiculous arrangement sound great, and is possibly the album’s greatest example of what Bejar can get away with when his songwriting is tight enough.

The album’s title track, opening with a slight air of white noise and Bejar’s lone voice, builds like a beautiful, anticlimatic sibling of Streethawk‘s "Strike." "Don’t Become the Thing You Hated" is one of the record’s most straightforward numbers and manages to go almost a minute before the inevitable MIDI accompaniment cuts in. While the clumsy descending lines do little to accentuate the melody, it remains one of his most affecting compositions to date. Like many of these songs, its brevity (the average song length is right around three and a half minutes, down from about five) will probably be a breath of fresh air from those that thought This Night‘s indulgence made it unlistenable.

"Mad Foxes," kicking off with another of Bejar’s clever and seemingly off-handed lines—"Berlin is for lovers, it will never fall/ but you can and you will"—also manages to work much better than cursory listens will let on. Its extended refrain, during which Bejar wildly repeats the word "fire" over more percussionless layers of synth, may seem initially underwhelming but, like "Your Blues," works in much the same way as the repetitious march of "Strike." "The Fox and the Hound" doesn’t fare so well; it’s the only song here that fails directly because of weak songwriting, and is perhaps the first of Bejar’s songs since Thief‘s title track that I feel is completely expendable. The production is fairly unobtrusive, but its supine, anticlimactic melody repeats for over three minutes without any sort of development or vaguely interesting addition. It just lazily exists, and even This Night‘s weaker tracks—"Self Portrait With Thing," for example—had an ambition that just failed to take off rather than just being complacent in attempting as little as possible.

Thankfully, "What Road" and "Certain Things You Ought To Know" close the record with an immediacy uncommon on Your Blues. "What Road" appears completely ambivalent to This Night’s existence, sounding like the perfect evolution from Streethawk‘s succinct melodies without being a superfluous retread. As promising as "What Road" may be, it’s "Certain Things" that really surprises. Its incredibly warm production, far more apposite than any other song on Your Blues, renders Bejar’s cracked whisper, assuming a prominant role above the barely audibly acoustic guitar and melodramatic "Streets of Philadelphia"-style synth, downright haunting. And just before Your Blues comes to an end, Bejar sings of "bridges made of sand"—coyly acknowledging not only his past work, much like he had done with "The Very Modern Dance," but also the fragility of Your Blues. For Destroyer, it’s another record, another avenue, another mask—and with it, he doesn’t so much retread as begin to rebuild, perhaps regressively toward his primordial golden bridge.

So, if you really don’t care for the song-by-song tour or you’re the kind of person that instantly heads straight to the last paragraph of long-form reviews to get the bottom line, here you go: Your Blues is another impressive and enjoyable Destroyer album that attempts to circumvent Bejar’s highly distinctive voice and writing style by adding more superfluous elements that have been slowly building since City of Daughters. If you don’t have a soft-spot for heavy MIDI cheese or Legend of Zelda soundtracks, you may not be thrilled with where these songs reside, but it’s hard to deny that many of them are a strong throwback to his seminal Streethawk-style writing.

He’s given it to us, but it wouldn’t be Bejar’s style to offer it without doing it on his own terms. Considering how Bejar goes through styles like Master P goes through running shoes, his next record will probably sound absolutely nothing like this, but who really knows what he’ll find suitable next; monk chanting? Wah-wah guitar soloing? Forget instruments altogether and head it out a cappella? If Bejar does accomplish anything with Your Blues, it’s to let it be known that no one will know what to expect from him next, but we should feel free to, uh, prance along with him into the future and hope for the best.