“Dan Bejar is the best New Pornographer” is a statement that could create controversy in any number of ways. In various indie circles, making such a statement is equal to slaps in the faces of country blues vixen Neko Case and power pop impresario A.C. Newman, especially the latter as the project has nearly morphed into a thinly veiled, alternately titled solo project. For a younger yet more in tune crowd, concerned parents could easily misconstrue this statement. I have no qualms about either consequence, as I am not young or overly concerned about offending fellow `music lovers.’ After all, in the history of groups with multiple songwriters, everyone has their particular personal favorite. To liken the NP’s to the most obvious of examples, Newman is Paul; more pop savvy and motivated toward making an entertaining AND successful album. Case is George, into her own thing, with a more personal form of expression, and Bejar is John, a little more avant-garde than the rest, concerned more about making art and poetry than about selling records. While these examples are somewhat extreme and cases can be made for the transposition of any of these roles, the point is that both in and out of the supergroup, each has their own particular brand of songwriting and the legions of fans that go with them.
For Bejar’s `solo’ work, he came up with a moniker that can, just like `the New Pornographers,’ tend to turn a few heads, that being Destroyer. Aside from being a song by the Kinks and an album by Kiss, what would normally serve as the tag for an aggressive death metal band now denotes the hybrid of glam and pop most often associated with the man whose name is dropped most often in Destroyer reviews, David Bowie. Over the past eleven years, Destroyer has been bringing Bejar’s penchant for dramatic cabaret indie folk, if you can at all understand what a bizarre bouillabaisse that is. Rubies is Destroyer’s seventh full-length release, following the fantastic Your Blues and the EP collaboration with Frog Eyes, Notorious Lightning & Other Works. But Rubies outshines them all.
The album begins with a song so expansive it would be considered by most bands to be a closer. At near ten minutes, Bejar takes his swipes at and pays his homage to the American music scene and its critics, citing “I wave bye to them in a modern way and increase my stay at the dock of the bay” and “Oh, it’s just your precious American Underground and it is born of wealth.” He later drops the name Proud Mary and sings, “All good things must come to an end. The bad ones just go on forever.” Ouch. If there was ever an indictment of popular music, that was it. And how does Bejar feel about himself? Pretty darn good since Proud Mary says, “I wanted you. I wanted Your Blues,” and he later sings, “This Night advances on…” which is a nod to two of Destroyer’s own album titles. He again drops the name “Your Blues” in the similarly titled “Your Blood,” and even that wouldn’t end up to be the last self-referential moment on the album. Proud Mary and other females appear in worlds dotted with art throughout Rubies like the women in Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” coming and going and talking of Michelangelo.
Each song’s delivery make one wonder whether Morrissey and Bob Dylan contributed their DNA toward an experimental genetics project that became Dan Bejar. The miraculous “European Oils” recalls the Band at its `Big Pink’ heights with great piano and guitar riffs echoing each other along with a sing-songy wordless chorus. The best moment is after he whispers into the mic, “She needs to feel at peace with her father, the fucking maniac…” we hear the most dramatic fuzz guitars ever heard on a Destroyer record.
“Looters Follies” brings the drunken sing along background chorus back into fashion while Bejar croons his Dylanesque way through smart and somewhat cryptic lyrics in a song that, were it not for the opener, would seem epic at seven and a half minutes. Newcomer to the band, piano player and keyboardist Ted Bois, is one of the many shining highlights of Rubies. His playing can either liven up a track or bring it down to a down and dirty barroom level instantly. Bejar’s cleverness is all over this album as in a line from “A Dangerous Woman Up To A Point,” as he sings, “Those who love Zeppelin will soon betray Floyd.” Besides referencing himself, there are allusions to Camus, Aeschylus, and various bits of popular music including “Have I told you lately that I love you,” and a riff in “3000 Flowers” on which I just cannot place my finger.
Rubies is such a work of genius that I almost can’t wrap my head around it. Like Joyce’s Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake, it almost needs a guidebook to help those through it who aren’t as familiar with literary references, the vast worlds of rock and roll, or even Destroyer’s shorter history. All that it’s missing are bits in Latin, Gaelic, and a lonely little moocow. The album rewards you from beginning to end, with its recurring characters, such as the `Sick Priest,’ its almost over the top delivery, and mostly its incredible tunesmithery, were I to coin a Joycean or Bejarian phrase. Like the best works of art, literature and music, Rubies works on various levels. Just as Shakespeare wrote plays that spoke to the drunkards in the cheap seats as well as the royalty in their luxury boxes, Bejar combines the worlds of highbrow art and rock and roll in such a way as to almost create a new genre. In fact, the album is so stunning and complete that I must amend some of my opening statements. Bejar isn’t just John, he’s all of the Beatles, Bowie, Dylan and the Band all rolled into one tight and seamless package, complete with a membership to MENSA.