Monday, November 29, 2010

Destroyer- Your Blues

I wouldn't go so far as to say it's one of her masterpieces, but PJ Harvey's last album, White Chalk, was a fascinating detour. Whereas before she was always the alt-rock guitar playing goddess, on that album she primarily plays piano, crafting songs that sound like what I imagine Tori Amos at her best must be like. There's a quote on the Wikipedia page for the album attributed to an interview in the magazine The Wire where she says “the great thing about learning a new instrument from scratch is that it [...] liberates your imagination.” I couldn't help but think of Destroyer's Your Blues when I read this quote, because Dan Bejar's sudden use of MIDI instruments and synthesizers on the album now strikes me as a similar situation.

Up until a few weeks ago, I hadn't heard any of Destroyer's pre-Your Blues albums, so the divide between it and the rest of his discography wasn't as sharp as it would've been. However, now that I know the rest of his albums fall into the 70s-David-Bowie-meets-mid-60s-Bob-Dylan sound, Your Blues is all the curvier of a curveball to throw. Still, last year's Bay Of Pigs EP and the recent Archer On The Beach, which promises to be even more ambient/electronic than the former (though I haven't heard it yet, so we'll see), show that the name Destroyer isn't synonymous with a certain kind of music. But I digress.

Returning to the PJ Harvey quote above: I feel like by forcing himself to give up his backing band and focus primarily on MIDI instrumentation and synthesizers, Bejar become a much more imaginative and skilled songwriter. Oh, sure, contributing songs to the New Pornographers helped, and his lyrics have always been amongst the most dense, intriguing, and self-referential in all of music—I never get tired of reminding people that he has a Wiki devoted to his lyrics—but I think it was only on Your Blues and after that his gift for music bloomed. Of course I have to immediately say that I love all of his earlier stuff that I've heard, but to me they don't match his post-Blues material in terms of arrangements and hooks.

This record's synth-orchestral pop aesthetic is what makes Your Blues the secret masterpiece of Destroyer's career. Since I normally don't go for music that has a cheesy synth-pop or lame MIDI-based sound to it, I was relieved to find Your Blues never sounds cheap or retro. 'An Actor's Revenge' has all the pomp and drama of the best baroque pop music of the past, albeit played on synthesizers instead of actual orchestral instruments. What should sound like schmaltzy plucked strings and over-done tympani hits on 'From Oakland To Warsaw' actually come off as sympathetic and appropriate accompaniment. Yet as brilliant as Your Blues is, I do prefer some of the Frog Eyes-backed reworkings of these songs on the Notorious Lightning & Other Works EP. In particular, on this album 'Don't Become The Thing You Hated' simply has too many unnecessary layers of sound during its middle section. 'Notorious Lightning' is the other prime candidate for best makeover, since it doesn't sound right to me when it's not a nine minute raucous guitar epic. OK, OK, this is supposed to be a review of Your Blues and not a comparison contest with an EP. Moving on...

Your Blues is that rare record that takes huge chances and delivers every step of the way. It is most assuredly the sort of music that will immediately turn off even longtime fans who can't get past the MIDI/synth instruments. I can understand that. Yet when I called it his secret masterpiece, I meant it, because those listeners who get what it is Bejar was going for on this album will truly love it. It may not become your go-to Destroyer album to throw on in an indecisive moment, but it may become your new favorite album for a week or two. And that, in my experience, is something worth investigating.

5 Poorly Drawn Stars Out Of 5

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