Destroyer’s Dan Bejar works best when he’s taking giant leaps forward. All of the evidence points toward the conclusion that the man just can’t sit still. And in his case, that’s a great thing, because it has allowed him to follow his every musical whim and produce some extraordinary documents in this last decade. Trouble in Dreams is the Vancouver-born songwriter’s eighth release and it defies all expectations by, well, not being all that different from 2006’s widely acclaimed Destroyer’s Rubies.
This fact should have been less surprising; after all, Bejar announced he’d be keeping around the Rubies band for the foreseeable future. Yet the assumption remained that this newest batch of songs would be a vast departure from previous efforts. It feels wrong to be disappointed in a Destroyer record for not being totally different from the last, but it’s hard to shake that feeling while listening in. It’s not that these songs are simply spinning their wheels. In fact, Trouble in Dreams seems to be testing the absolute limits of Rubies’ full-band sound. The group is discovering how far they can warp and distort rock ‘n’ roll’s variables before the brittle cord connecting it to reality snaps. Even if one can’t see that as anything but wheel-spinning, it’s pleasing to discover that the dust those wheels are kicking up is some quality stuff.
The songs here aren’t always immediate, but there’s sure to be a sucker punch or two waiting in closed fists with each listen. There are obvious moments like the sublime, synth-heavy conclusion of “Dark Leaves Form A Thread” or the swirling guitar riff and wacky delivery of the lines “Beware the company you reside in!” from “My Favorite Year.” But there are also the more subtle and comprehensive instances, like the wistful organ drone of “Foam Hands,” or the big band stomp and parlor keys of the spectacularly drawn “Rivers,” or the jumpy, erratic paranoia of “The State.” Even “Shooting Rockets (from the Desk of Night’s Ape)” hearkens back to the much-loved MIDI orchestra of 2004’s Your Blues.
Bejar’s lyrics, as oblique and ornate as they are, have been as much a signature of the Destroyer sound as his guitar work and wordless melodies. It’s fitting then that Destroyer-themed magnetic poetry sets came packaged with promotional copies of the album, including such Bejar-ready words as “treacherous,” “Strathcona,” and “fucking.” The tongue-in-cheek existence of such an item might suggest that anyone could make this stuff up. Throw down some literary allusions, polish them up with a few vague metaphors, and you too can write your own Destroyer song. But that would be a lazy assumption. Bejar’s lyrics are incredibly self-conscious. He makes note of this, singing in “Blue Flower/Blue Flame,” “I’ll tell you/ What I mean by that/ Maybe not in seconds flat/ Maybe never.”
It’s clear that Bejar realizes what his vagaries and repetition of ideas and words, even whole verses, across his releases might sound like to some. But in actuality, he’s building them together with a sense of interconnectivity that’s pretty unparalleled in recent music-making. His new words are further elaborating on past words, helping to create a grander image of the world in which these songs exist. The lyrics of Trouble in Dreams help maintain this tradition by adding even more vivid, storied, and emotional brush strokes.
Destroyer is not for everyone. Never has been. It’s no wonder that his side-projects, such as Swan Lake and The New Pornographers, garner more buzz than Destroyer ever could. It’s dense, but still remarkably accessible stuff. As easy on the ears as it can sometimes be, that doesn’t make Destroyer’s music any less intimidating. They’re the type of band that inspires a rabid fanbase in some and wild indifference in others. So, is Trouble in Dreams the type of record that could inspire that sort of devotion from cursory listeners? Maybe.
As much as Trouble in Dreams shares an aesthetic closeness to Rubies, its more accurate soul mate is the oft-maligned and just as oft-celebrated rock opus, This Night. That album took one look at rock music and said, "No, wait, here’s how you do it.” It’s a bloated epic, as full of realized ideas as half-baked ones and is what Bejar insists real rock music sounds like. Trouble in Dreams is just like that. A bit more polished, a little more cohesive, and a bunch more bizarre, but all still an attempt at reinventing rock ‘n’ roll from the inside out. But at this juncture in his career, for better or worse, Bejar is also reinventing his past selves. And in a bet against Destroyer, argue the better.