My college had about 2100 students crammed into a main campus of roughly five square miles. Like many other American liberal arts colleges, the place had its own post office, grocery, ATM, concert venues, bookstore, health center, and job market; it was ostensibly designed to keep students from ever having to leave campus unless absolutely necessary. As a result, any vacation had the air of dire necessity: “I have to get the hell out of here for a while, man.”
Since it was small enough that everyone recognized each other, people had reputations without even knowing it. You might see Mohawk Guy in the library or run into a pack of Treehouse Kids in the language building. My crew consisted of me and three other guys, and we were united in our desire to eschew cliques, as if we were the only ones who could successfully avoid being pigeonholed. One of these three friends spent the summer before senior year listening to Destroyer’s Rubies and brought it back to school like a convert coming down from the mountain. The four of us spent a lot of time cooped up in my living room drinking Lionshead lager and talking about how claustrophobic campus life could be, only moderately aware of the irony. The musical accompaniment for our exile was Rubies, usually blasting at a deafening volume. Other people didn’t come over too often; apparently watching four drunk guys play air guitar while screaming lines like “I lifted the veil to see nature's trickery revealed as pure shit from which nothing ever rose” wasn’t everyone’s idea of a good time.
Not that it mattered to us. I’ve already forgotten the German conjugations I learned that year, but the guitar break in the middle of “European Oils” is burned in my brain (I hope) permanently. Same with the full-band entrance to “Rubies,” the last line of “Your Blood,” the chorus to “Painter in Your Pocket,” the fade-out to “Watercolours Into the Ocean”… you get the idea. Destroyer’s Rubies is the kind of record that overrides my critical faculties because it’s inseparable from my experiences with it. The taste of Lionshead seems as integral to Rubies as the guitar playing or Dan Bejar’s free-associative lyrics. Likewise, those lyrics were so dense with references and asides that we could deepen our small group bond by repeating them endlessly. In Bejar’s characters—pretentious would-be artists, druggy scene kids, inscrutable women, confused intellectuals—we thought we saw a reflection of the collegiate reality around us.
The four of us marked time in our Rubies bubble for three months, so it was a shock to find out the truth once I returned home: A lot of people think Destroyer is helplessly lame. For many people without that immediate group experience, Destroyer’s Rubies comes off like an over-produced bar band fronted by a singer so arch he makes Berlin-era Bowie sound like B.B. King. Friends at home didn’t hear a thrilling appropriation of 1970s guitar styles; they heard a bunch of noodling wankery. They agreed that Bejar’s words were unhinged and dense, but they didn’t mean it as a compliment.
Trouble in Dreams, the follow-up to Rubies released March 18, isn’t likely to convince anyone heretofore unimpressed by Destroyer’s shtick. You’re either going to embrace a verse like “A blind doe learns to work the rig/A once thin man turns into a pig/The empty groves wherein my soul pukes the night away” or you’re going to find it rambling and incoherent. Likewise, the album’s music will either seem like a hodgepodge of fist-pumping rock clichés and Bacharachian chord progressions, or you’ll love it because the music and lyrics play a constant tug-of-war for command of the songs.
The biggest adjustment for Rubies fans will be Trouble in Dreams’ relative quiet. Three of the 11 tracks have no drums to speak of, and two more (including the first single “Foam Hands”) are slow ballads. Volume-wise, this won’t be much of a surprise for listeners of Bejar’s earlier lo-fi work, or even the ramshackle tracks on This Night. But for Trouble in Dreams, he’s cast himself as a serious balladeer: “Introducing Angels” could soundtrack a prom dance, while “Shooting Rockets (From the Desk of Night’s Ape)” is as close as Bejar’s come to writing a Nick Cave- or Scott Walker-style epic.
Not that anyone would ever misconstrue Destroyer for the Bad Seeds. The band is as great as ever (if given less musical highlights than on Rubies), but the focus here, as always, is on Bejar’s persona. The character sketches, the recurring motifs about painters and artists, the references to his other songs and bands—all of Destroyer’s work is the product of a man so deep inside his own head that he barely seems to consider an audience at all. I’m well removed from the boy’s-club atmosphere and the desperate need to form my own small universe in defense of collegiate claustrophobia, but Trouble in Dreams offers definitive reassurance that I don't need it to enjoy this band. Like only the best musicians, Dan Bejar creates his own context.