ARTS

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October 25, 2002

What's The Matter With Arts And Entertainment?

Trendspotters would do well to note that some of the best rock music released in America today comes from artists who may not call themselves rock musicians. There's currently something of a renaissance in pop music. My use of "pop" in the context of this erstwhile renaissance doesn't include the Avril Lavignes and Vanessa Carltons that those insolent foreigners - the Vines and the Hives - have arrived to protect us from. "Pop" in this context means simply those musicians who are unashamed of the catchiness of their songs. Their goal in creating an album is not to subtly convey a set of political beliefs or provide catharsis for the volcanic emotions of late-teen punk fans, but to write the kind of song listeners can hear repeatedly in their heads. As such, it's another notable intersection of high and low culture. The leading lights of the pop revival are college-educated bands that hold fast to traditional independent aesthetics but still make fare that was known as "bubblegum rock" in less culturally freewheeling times. Prominent albums from the movement include Death Cab for Cutie's We Have the Facts and We're Voting Yes, Spoon's Girls Can Tell, the Shins' Oh, Inverted World, and-perhaps the finest example of all-the New Pornographers' Mass Romantic.

Such music is not anything new. Lesser-known pop icons like the Left Banke and the 13th Floor Elevators have inspired bands ever since the late 1970's. However, where three years ago bands might have fought a pop designation, fearing association with the Nick Carters of the world, the term is now something of a catchall, one capable of including both the most virulently anti-commercial as well as the most financially lucrative acts. Pop is a genre once again, not simply a mark of hipster derision.

It's a mark of our collective good fortune that Destroyer's latest album, This Night, was released into such a receptive environment. Of course, Destroyer's singer-songwriter, Daniel Bejar, did a lot to create such an environment through his work in the New Pornographers and his work on the three previous Destroyer albums. But while Mass Romantic had been released for over a year before it caught on last winter, and Destroyer's Streethawk: A Seduction received critical praise but virtually no attention, This Night should fare much better. The music press and the independent labels have made efforts to win over a skeptical public, and the supposed garage-rock revival has given us all an ear for nostalgia in our albums, which Destroyer supplies in spades.

It's difficult to appreciate the pop aspects of Destroyer on a first listen. Indeed, what jumps out immediately is Bejar's voice, which, though distinctly nasal, has a surprising range. As a singer, Bejar has been compared to Bowie and Dylan, and while I generally think that in rock criticism all comparisons are false, those at least get the point across: Bejar is an effective, but not unpolished, vocalist. The lyrics also take a bit of getting used to-they're the sorts of dense lines that appear to be about something important, although that something will remain permanently obscured. Consider, if you will, a typical example: "I know you've been waiting ages for your pardon, but the Governor's wasted in the garden, clawing his eyes out-he's insane…So I'll be your map and I'll be your mirror and maybe someday I'll see you building dungeons in the rain and when it's time to go free-No, I won't leave…No, I won't leave." Hearing the lyrics sung clears matters up a bit, but the larger meaning remains a mystery. It's a mystery worth figuring out, to be sure, but a mystery nonetheless.

The lyrics are merely half the story, however. First-time listeners may also be taken aback by the song structure. Bejar appears to cobble together songs from the remnants of other writers' abandoned songs. If it grabs you at all, a Destroyer song will not grab you at the beginning. The moment comes about three-and-a-half-minutes in, when Bejar tosses in a chord progression, a backing vocal, or a piano hook from out of nowhere. All of a sudden the melody lifts up what had been a plodding song, and a seemingly endless series of hooks begin to dovetail into one another. It's a neat trick, one he seems to pull off without any apparent effort. We're talking, after all, about something as simple as a "bah-pa-pa" from the back-up singers, a couple of handclaps, and a melodica picking up over the vocals. It's hard to write off success, however, especially when the success is this consistent and the results are so enjoyable.

While it would be easy to throw a fit over Destroyer's lack of success thus far, commercial success seems to be the farthest thing from Daniel Bejar's mind. He responded to the acclaim for the first two Destroyer albums by dismissing his bandmates, and he moved from Vancouver to Montreal just as the Vancouver-based New Pornographers began to enjoy a modest amount of success. He was also absent from the Pornographers' longest tour, after deciding to spend an extended period of time in Europe. His lyrics also suggest that he has major philosophical differences with the record industry; at the very least, he keeps whatever rock star ambitions he may be harboring very well hidden. His avoidance of success doesn't excuse listeners from the obligation of letting the music speak for itself, and indeed those who hear This Night may finally understand why some people are raising such a fuss over the new pop.

Destroyer will perform at the Abbey Pub on October 26.