(Catsup Plate/Triple Crown/Cave Canem)
By Douglas Wolk
Poets rarely write good pop songs. Poetry relies on subtlety and complexity; lyrics rely on cleverness, repetition, immediacy, and conciseness--it's hard to make sense of a lot of subordinate clauses that may fly by your ear only once--and tend to forgive stupidity and obviousness. So when Destroyer's Daniel Bejar sings, "It's a long climb down from obscurity / So cancel the keys to the city please / Upon which I'll rest the inextricable failures of popular wisdom and popular music," which is tough enough to parse on paper, the mind rebels. Most of the lyrics on Thief, the Vancouver band's second album, are best absorbed by transcribing and then staring at them until they make sense.
Bejar's songs sound like the work of an abstract poet who's preoccupied with the idea of the intersection of art and commerce (it comes up in almost every song) but whose only direct experience of pop music is having heard "Ziggy Stardust" and "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" a couple times apiece. This actually represents formal progress from Destroyer's previous album, City of Daughters (Tinker/Cave Canem), which was a purely functional vehicle for the words (its song titles included "Rereading The Marble Faun" and "School, and the Girls Who Go There").
But the corollary to the rules of lyric writing is that sounding like you know what you're doing trumps all of them. The trio that played on City of Daughters has expanded to a quintet on Thief, and its confident glam rock does wonders for Bejar's songs. Keyboardist Jason Zumpano (from the band Zumpano) is an especially useful addition: he plays Steve Nieve to Bejar's Elvis Costello, gussying up every song with banging piano, purring organ, Left Banke-ish harpsichord, and whatever else might keep the music dense enough to support the torrents of polysyllables. At times he cops from Nieve directly: "Mercy (We Had the Right)" ends with a riff from "Oliver's Army." When Bejar shuts off the faucet, the rest of Destroyer gets to shine; the instrumental passages in the midtempo waltz "To the Heart of the Sun on the Back of the Vulture, I'll Go" are worthy of the Smiths.
Bejar is slowly adjusting to the conventions of pop songwriting, but he's far from surrendering to them. He's willing to experiment with repetition, but he obviously chafes at having to sing exactly the same thing twice, so, for instance, a refrain in "Destroyer's the Temple"--"I will find you, Lord, in the classified loves of three good women / You are familiar with these terms, I trust?"--mutates slightly every time it recurs. "Find" becomes "fund," "classified" becomes "calcified," and if by the end you're wondering if even Bejar knows what he's talking about, you're not alone. He tries out nonsense syllables and melismata, which sound doubly bizarre at the end of convoluted sentences like "as the festivals run dry, sweet whorish children, please look them in the eye as they turn you out and turn you into something less than beautiful agai-he-he-he-he-he-he-he-he-he-hen."
But Bejar is also discovering ways in which setting words to music can be more useful than putting them on a page. His favorite trick is withholding the sense of a word or a phrase until he's taken a breath and gone on to the next line. It works better heard than read, because you don't know what's coming next until it hits, and he can position his pauses for syntactical fake-outs: "And she wants you / To go, but this is the way / Of perpetual roads." Occasionally he takes it further, breaking a word in the middle. There's a passage in the song "City of Daughters" (which is on Thief) that can only be transcribed as "What is it about / Music that lends itself so well / To business as fu- / Ckin' usual?"
Bejar sings this stuff in one of the thinnest voices ever committed to record, a fragile whimper that sounds like a parody of David Bowie, and he tries to bulk it up by double or triple tracking it on almost every song, which gives it a sort of Greek-chorus aspect. He whimpers with conviction, though; as with the Spiders from Mars, all the band has to do is follow his lead, and every crack in his voice sounds like a deliberate manifestation of style.
Bejar's best singing on Thief, actually, is his sloppiest--on the closer, which is also the title track, a tune whose chords and mood make it an evil cousin to "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want." For the first two minutes he's accompanied only by a guitar, muted as though recorded on a cheap cassette. "Hospitals overflow with singers embittered and pissed," he whines, and the multitracked consonants of "pissed" don't all quite hit at the same time, so he seems to split into three discrete singers for a moment. He navigates a few more Proustian verses, and finally lands on "a picture / Of a world at war / When the world was not at war." He sounds pleased with that line, and repeats it verbatim--"When the world was not at war"--and then repeats it again and again as his guitar leaps back to trebly life. It's a betrayal of writerly poetics--and an embrace of the lyricist's art.