Rating:If Daniel Bejar has taught his audience anything in his two-decades-plus career, it is that they should expect the unexpected from the artist. Destroyer’s 2011 LP Kaputt was enigmatic, atmospheric and attractively cheesy. Somehow the Canadian singer-songwriter made the sounds of 80s adult-contemporary music sound like poetry, using smooth-jazz saxophones and mechanical synths as colors in a complex, sublime sonic landscape. Bejar’s unlikely artistic decisions won Kaputt much acclaim and admiration, with a nomination for the Polaris Music Prize and appearances on countless end-of-year lists proving the record’s critical success.
It wasn’t a real shocker, then, when a cryptic, rather hilarious, statement by Bejar about his next musical project appeared on the Merge Records website a couple months ago. “It was 2013. The English language seemed spent, despicable, not easily singable,” the artist pointed out. “It felt over for English; good for business transactions, but that’s about it.” Bejar went on to say that Spanish is the only other language he knows, and he would focus on the “bitter songs about painting the light” by Antonio Luque, a Spanish musician from the band Sr. Chinarro.
Whatever Bejar’s motivations for releasing the EP Five Spanish Songs, whether he is truly disillusioned with the English language or, in his typical fashion, he just wants to “shake things up,” the result is rather dazzling. This isn’t a collection of thruway tracks—an oddity in a large, varied discography. Rather, Five Spanish Songs is mesmerizing from start to finish and stands up with Destroyer’s best work.
It will undoubtedly strike some fans as odd, or even disappointing, that Bejar, known for his elusive, hyper-literate lyrics and discursive melodies, isn’t the author of the songs contained in this collection. While it’s true that Antonio Luque’s compositions seem a bit less strange and impressionistic than Bejar’s typical fare, the songs’ emotional melodicism fits the singer’s voice. Bejar’s quirky sense of phrasing keeps the record interesting from start to finish. While it is clear that the singer isn’t a native Spanish speaker, the fact that his sense of the language’s rhythms and accents feels just a little “off” at times adds to the EP’s feeling of willful unorthodoxy.
Despite Five Spanish Song’s brevity, each song creates its own little world, and we can sense that Bejar is taking us on a journey from start to finish. Opener “Maria de las nieves” is an austere, slightly twangy love ballad which wouldn’t sound out of place on Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky. “Del monton” has the most unconventional texture and groove on the record, with a Django Reinhardt-esque, choppy guitar part and tortuous piano filler. Bejar flexes his rock ‘n’ roll muscles on “El rito,” a high-energy barnburner complete with heartland-rock guitar riff. The spirit of Kaputt is invoked on “Babieca,” with its repetitive, understated melody and disco-infused rhythms. In appropriate fashion, the acoustic ballad “Bye Bye” brings the album to a simple, tender close.
On Five Spanish Songs, Bejar and his fellow musicians in Destroyer have made the Spanish language sound strange, versatile and, above all, beautiful. When Bejar decides once again that the English language is, in fact, not “spent” or “despicable,” he will be fortunate if he’s able to invoke the same range of emotional expression in his native tongue