Monday, February 5, 2007

Another version of this miniature Rome to set fire to

#7 Destroyer, Destroyer’s Rubies (Merge, 2006)

So an upstart 2006 release elbows its way into my top 10. Hey, 2006 was a good year for music, and the fevered, obsessive listening that this record caused made me feel like a headphoned teenager in my parents' basement. The presence of Destroyer's Rubies, in my top 10 is justified by its quality, but it also stands in for optimism about excitement over music in the future. Having just turned 30, I am in desperate fear of waking up one day to find out that I only listen to music I discovered between the ages of 18-28. Destroyer’s Rubies, in other words, gives me hope that I will continue to be thrilled by music, both by new releases and by yet-undiscovered back catalog records.

Let me explain myself in typically long-winded fashion. One of the most distinctive aspects of this album is its wordiness. Dan Bejar has a skipping, dollar-word filled cadence that, though it certainly does not neglect meter, rushes through these songs as if to attempt to say everything at once. His lyrics seem to be designed for the ultra-in group – multiple references to his own songs, to obscure parts of his hometown of Vancouver, to the rock canon (Floyd, Zep, the Beatles, “Losing My Religion”). Yet, the (almost)-to-the-point-of-parody hipster intellectual rambling also shows a real awareness of the limits of words’ signifying power. (And I suspect that many, if not most, of the obscure lyrics are not meant to be deciphered). Note, on the one hand, the countless references to the visual arts – just to share the song titles, there’s “European Oils,” “Painter In Your Pocket,” and “Watercolors Into the Ocean.” In fact, you might even say that Rubies is about art and painting, making it almost literally an exercise in ‘dancing about architecture.’ And then, on the other hand, the most distinctive vocal/lyrical link among the songs is the ‘la da da da das’ that feature prominently in six of Rubies’ ten songs. These nonsense syllables, if you want to get all pseudo-academic about it (and you probably don’t) seem to highlight the ultimate failure of “high-art/poetic lyrics’” rock music (which is of course a self-criticism as well as a criticism of the Bob Dylan-esque “authentic American bohemian intellectual” idea of rock music) because they expose the idea that the only things that really authentically signify in rock are barroom sing-alongs.

And the barroom la-da-das, if you skipped the end of that last paragraph, are incredibly fun and catchy. Another secret about this album is that, far from being an impossibly esoteric art project, it is actually a straight-up classic rock record. Bejar tries to hide it (or makes the listener work for it) by kicking off the album with “Rubies,” a 9-minute song that doesn’t really have a chorus. (I love that song now, but I’ll admit I foolishly skipped it 8 out of the first 10 times I listened to Rubies). On the face of it, this is a ‘difficult’ artsy record, but as the shuffly countrified strum of the second song “Your Blood,” indicates to all who are brave enough to soldier on past “Rubies,” we are in familiar waters here. Unlike some other Destroyer records (the Air Supply-meets-Nintendo Your Blues comes to mind), this one is, sonically at least, very accessible. I think it is definitely an advance on the classic rock idiom – Bejar is a highly inventive songwriter and by no means a slavish copier – but it’s not musically revolutionary (my mom heard this in the background one time this summer and asked me, “Is this David Bowie?” The clever and correct answer to this question would have been “Essentially”). As Bejar sings in “Looters Follies,” “A life in art, and a life in mimicry … it’s the same thing!”

In fact, its fundamentally traditional, even out of step, feel might ultimately be what already makes it one of my all-time favorites (and perhaps what, despite glowing initial reviews, made it absent from many critics’ year-end lists. Prof. Cougar didn’t even put it in his top 30 of the year – an omission that actually had me second-guessing my ranking.) In a time when individual song downloads and ringtones rule, Rubies presents a compelling argument for the viability and relevance for the supposedly lifeless form of the album. When classic rock has either been ossified into 50-song radio playlists or bastardized as turgid (or is that turd-gid?) acts like Audioslave, Nickelback, and Daughtry, Rubies shows that this tradition still has much to offer. Can the dead classics live on into the 21st century to be aped and bastardized and otherwise destroyed by new generations of artists? If so, it might be because of this record.


Big Cougar said...

Well-played. I will admit that after getting this record in January of last year, it slowly slipped into oblivion by summer. Part of the reason was that I only had this record digitally, and it was therefore replaced by newer things, and part of the reason was that getting past track 1 is indeed hard. It was definitely a Top 40 for me but did not make my playlist as much as many others. I always enjoy Bejar's rock canon nods, but my favorite Destroyer record is without question Streethawk II: A Seduction (thank you Ethan and Radiofree yet again) which doesn't have as many prog elements as Rubies but does have tons of proto-New Pornographer melodies and, as usual, hipster vocab. I'm breaking out Rubies today in your honor, but only if you promise to give Streethawk a listen sometime soon. (BTW, I found Your Blues practically unlistenable so Rubies was definitely a step up.)

Sean B said...

Will do. I also really really like Streethawk - one of my favorite rock and roll moments maybe ever is in "Sublimation Hour" when he says 'this phony beatlemania has bitten the dust' RIGHT when that super-fuzzed out guitar kicks in. gold.

I think a good comparison between Streethawk and Rubies can be made with respect to "Bad Arts" on the former and "European Oils" on the latter. Both are long-ish midtempo songs that slowly build up in the middle to a crescendo and a shouted line. But as opposed to 'Bad Arts,' where it goes, "bloodlet yourself, street style!!!" and then erupts into... silence followed by a totally different song, "European Oil's" interjection, "her father, the fucking maniac!!" instead leads into a very satisfying, if typical rock, guitar solo. Both are equally good and effective, but I think that "European Oils" in this light is a great indicator of the more accessible, maybe more populist (?) style of Rubies.