Destroyer frontman (or one man band depending on the album) Dan Bejar has always been the Salvador Dali of the indie world: a moody wordsmith boasting a musical pallet that is strikingly original without sacrificing accessibility. With Trouble In Dreams, our favorite prolific Canadian (and there are many these days) proves that while his work follows a formula, it’s a formula that is, after over a decade, still effective, unique, and most importantly, enjoyable. Repeat the following steps:
1. Smooth out a healthy chunk of image laden 70s rock (think early David Bowie) on the cutting board.
2. Add a dash of baroque instrumentation while keeping the occasional guitar solo.
3. Fill in the gaps with vaguely narrative lyrics laced with revolution, musical pop culture references,* medieval imagery, and women named Susan, Libby, Ruby, or Jackie.
*note: These references can even contain snippets of already existing lyrics. Be liberal. Everything from “Have I told you lately that I love you?” to “Since you’ve been gone” is game.
And there you have it. A recipe for a perfectly solid Destroyer song. Always postmodern. Always listenable.
One thing that Bejar does differently on Dreams is beef up the rock-oriented instrumentation. Gone are the noir saxophones, Mark Twain banjos, and saloon pianos of 2006’s Destroyer’s Rubies, hawked at a Thin Lizzy garage sale for brisker tempos, richer bass lines, and thunderclap drums. The album is by no means “heavy,” but the band definitely starts to live up to its name, although you wouldn’t know it by the opening track. “Blue Flower, Blue Flame,” is a calm, acoustic drift through a drunk man’s watercolor painting; the elegant splatter of a lazy lover who muses how “the sky looks like wine.” Things pick up a bit with “Dark Leaves Form A Thread,” a manic piece of midnight poetry chronicling the protagonist’s paranoia after his lover leaves him alone in the moonlight.
The lyrics here are vintage Bejar, existing somewhere between when you get in bed and when you actually fall asleep. Although we are never able to get the complete story from our most unreliable narrator, we can glean enough details from his fluid images and phrases to piece together an atmosphere that is sharpened yet hazy, as if we are watching his stories through a classroom projector that is constantly being adjusted. We may not know who the central character of “Foam Hands” truly is, and why the disappearance of a certain someone from a castle causes him and the king to steadily grow apart, but Bejar’s description of a clock’s hands melting at dusk make the whole thing damn near heartbreaking, even with the whistling at the end of the track. For me, it conjured up adolescent dreamscapes of being bored on a Saturday afternoon right as the sun is going down. And that’s how it is in Destroyer’s world. Surreal metaphors are fleshed out into three dimensional, clarified beasts, while literal descriptions end up shrouded in mystery.
This is the most apparent on “Leopard of Honor,” a standout track on the album. I’m not quite sure what the hell a “leopard of honor” is, but it sure sounds graceful against the freewheeling backdrop of psychedelic church organ, salt-n-pepper tambourine, and wall of sound guitars. Bejar uses every effects pedal known to man in five and half minutes and yet the track still sounds as breezy as can be until the end, never assaulting or overwhelming the listener. Think Bob Dylan being backed by Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem in slow motion.
Things get a little bogged down toward the album’s middle with “Shooting Rockets.” Already included on Bejar’s side project Swan Lake’s debut album, Beast Moans, the eight minute track feels plodding, dull, and unnecessary. The repetition of the line “shooting rockets” over an exhausting string section and droning guitar is menacing at first, but grows numbing around the six and a half minute mark.
The album suffers similar pacing problems with “Introducing Angels” and closer “Libby’s First Sunrise.” Although the tracks are majestic in their own right and nowhere near as sluggish as “Shooting Rockets,” Bejar’s lyrics are far too interesting for songs that resort to repetitive phrases and plateaued arrangements as they fade away.
But these are minor complaints for an album that manages to be literary, challenging, and catchy all at the same time. Trouble In Dreams may sound like babble to some, but listen closer. You just might learn something, even if you’re not sure what that something is until right before you fall asleep.