Destroyer was once classified as “folk rock” and constantly compared to David Bowie.
On Dark Was the Night, the 2009 Dessner brothers-curated charity boxset, the New Pornographers covered “Hey, Snow White,” a song from Destroyer’s fifth album, This Night. This was kind of hilarious considering the fact that included among the New Pornos’ multitudinous ranks of impish Canadians is none other than Dan Bejar, for whom Destroyer is essentially a nom de plume. This being the case, someone who has never listened to Destroyer might assume that “Hey, Snow White” would be a natural cover choice, like the Beatles covering “Imagine” or something. After all, the three token Bejar songs on every New Pornos album, off-kilter as they may sometimes be compared to Carl Newman’s mechanistically well-crafted power pop nuggets, always fit in well enough, and yeah, Bejar’s got that weird-ass voice, but still—how much of a stretch could it be?
A big one, is the correct answer. Sure, there are plenty of Destroyer songs that could, and in fact have, conceivably worked with the New Pornos (Bejar originally released “Breakin’ the Law” and “Streets of Fire” under the Destroyer moniker before the New Pornos re-appropriated them). But not something from This Night, and certainly not “Hey, Snow White,” a towering, knotted epic of repetition and sloppiness. Making the New Pornos apply their sunny pop craft to it would be like asking the Doug Yule-era Velvet Underground to cover Metal Machine Music. Consummate tunesmiths that they are, Newman and crew, sans Bejar, made it their own, extracting a mannered yet winsomely regretful-sounding pop tune out of it. But it’s a pale shadow of the original. The New Pornographers are a generally loved band, but they’ve never had the audacity to pull off something as audaciously batshit as This Night.
Those who have come to be familiar with Bejar as a debonair club crooner through Destroyer’s recent hit albums, 2011’s Kaputt and 2015’s Poison Season, may be surprised to learn that Destroyer was once classified as “folk rock” and constantly compared to David Bowie. No, seriously. That was the climate in which This Night was released in 2002, two years after the New Pornographers’ debut Mass Romantic and one after the first Destroyer album, un-coincidentally, to generate real critical buzz, Streethawk: A Seduction. Streethawk is nearly as brilliant as This Night in its own way but doesn’t sound anything like its follow-up. Streethawk is tight, congenial and intimate while This Night is sprawling, unwieldy and dense. It’s certainly characteristic of Bejar to throw a wrench into his sound; he is an adept musical chameleon, and while all his work is tied together by his idiosyncratically byzantine, meta wordplay and that peculiar, reedy yelp of his, no two Destroyer albums sound alike. Some barely occupy the same genre. But This Night is still the only album Bejar has put out that completely defies any convenient or concise description. Your Blues is “the MIDI album,” for instance, and Kaputt is “the ‘80s dance album,” But just what the hell is This Night? Containing elements of a million different emotional and stylistic shades, from spiraling arena rock wanking to tender, vulnerable balladry to drunken chanting, the best way to describe it is “Neil Young & Crazy Horse for the criminally insane.” Or something like that.
One musical element that does tie much of This Night together is the prominence of electric guitars. Prior Destroyer records were defined by Spartan arrangements and Bejar’s nylon string guitar strumming, and more recent albums have branched out from traditional rock instrumentation. This Night, however, is very much a guitar record, featuring lead guitarist Nic Bragg periodically launching into towering arena-ready riffs or tearing off spastic solos. Due to the sloppy-ass playing This Night is never going to land on anyone’s list of Most Technically Stunning Guitar Albums of All-Time, but the boldness with which Bragg and Bejar’s guitars are mixed indicates that This Night was intended to be considered, in its own strange way, part of a ballsy guitar rock tradition. The state of rock music is in fact a common lyrical theme throughout This Night; on “Makin’ Angels,” the album’s most arena rock-styled cut, Bejar sings: “Rock ‘n’ roll’s not through yet/ I’m sewing wings on this thing.”
Beyond that, however, This Night’s unifying theme could be said to be “throwing shit at a wall.” Fortunately, everything sticks, but only very precariously. Songs often begin aimlessly with a few cacophonous seconds of the musicians flailing around in search of a groove—not to mention the correct key—then lurch around from verse to chorus to bridge in a manner so disorderly it dilutes the distinction between the three. In 2015, Bejar described This Night as “the beginning of me letting go of this obsession with song structure and popcraft.” Add that to the under-rehearsed, if not totally unrehearsed performances and you’ve got an album that constantly sounds like it’s teetering on the brink of chaos in a most fascinating way. The rhythm section is raw and loose but never quite falls apart, and Bragg hits plenty of bum notes while frantically searching for the right scale—but he always finds it eventually. Bejar’s voice holds steady in the center of the mix, but following his lyrics are like trying to navigate a maze—he’s certainly no source of stability. The result is songs like the opening title track—the band doesn’t even come close to getting in sync until 30 seconds in, and once they do, Bejar drags them on a wild musical goose chase from stately piano and gentle crooning to guitar bombast to near power pop. Meanwhile, “Holly Going Lightly” has all the elements of an absolute rock anthem, but Bejar rebelliously constructs it backwards, starting with the triumphant guitar riff and would-be climactic sing-along before bringing the momentum to a halt halfway through the proceedings and drifting into a gentle reverie until the end of the song. It completely defies convention. It’s brilliant. Then, of course, there’s “Hey, Snow White,” which features all of three lines of lyrics repeated enough times in between bouts of Destroyer’s shambolic take on “jamming” to stretch the song out to eight minutes.
There are a couple of more conventional pop-oriented songs on This Night, like the zippy “Modern Painters” and “The Chosen Few,” whose driving flamenco-style acoustic guitars betray the fact that Bejar wrote much of the album while living in Spain. But overall the album achieves Bejar’s goal of transcending customary pop structures and instead becomes a triumph of haunting atmospherics. Even those “more conventional” tunes feel weighty, like messy conglomerations of layers upon layers of dark moods; the product of a frayed mind searching for clarity late at night. As powerfully enveloping as all this is, a couple of This Night’s most powerful moments come when Bejar opens up a break in the oppressive atmospheric clouds. Specifically with “Trembling Peacock.” While the loose groove and the discomforting high-pitched violins match with the rest of the album, at its core, it’s still one of the cleanest, most sentimental and warmest acts of melodicism that Bejar has ever managed. It’s also the closest he’s ever come to something that’s recognizable as personal songwriting, displaying a level of emotional sensitivity that he usually hides beneath his esoteric Bohemian poetry: “Relax, trembling peacock/ No I wasn’t born to rock/ Oh, I was just plain born/ And then I kind of grew and then, well/ Vancouver made me, I guess it’s true.” Even more remarkable is “Goddess of Drought,” the only solo acoustic song on This Night. Its lyrics may be more difficult to parse, but the emotion behind Bejar’s beautiful, yearning performance is clear as day. These two songs make it clear that a new day will eventually dawn once the darkness of This Night is over. Just not too quickly.