Destroyer Debate: "Streethawk: A Seduction" vs. "This Night"
With most indie rock bands the only debate you can have about them is pretty straightforward -- are they good or do they suck? It's rare you can have an argument of substance, but that's not the case with Destroyer. Dan Bejar (who basically is Destroyer) is the kind of idiosyncratic, iconoclastic songwriter who inspires obsession (check the Destroyer wiki), random hilarity (check the Bejar Family Circus) and, well, more obsession (what follows over the next few thousand words).
When I was down in Austin a couple of months ago I ran into friend of Post Rock/Pitchfork senior contributor/Get Him Eat Him frontman/fellow Bejar-obsessive Matt Lemay at the Merge Records showcase where Destroyer played. We started into a debate about what the best Destroyer album was and found that we both felt very strongly that our respective favorite albums -- 2001's "Streethawk: A Seduction" for me, the next year's "This Night" for him -- was Bejar's best. Pistols at dawn can only work for so long, so we decided to settle things in a more civilized way -- arguing and insulting each other over e-mail.
What follows is our back-and-forth and to say we are a little obsessive would be an understatement. If you haven't heard either of these albums, you're going to be more lost than a virgin at an orgy, but you just might learn something. I start things off and the "Streethawk" album cover is my symbol.
What I love most about "Streethawk" is that its bombast is manageable. It has a lot of the grandeur that Bejar took to new levels on subsequent albums but the arrangements and songs themselves are relatively understated. They don't get gobbled up in chaos; I can actually picture a band playing these songs in the studio. And "Streethawk" isn't defined by some weird aesthetic, like those chirpy backing vocals on "This Night" or the MIDI terror of "Your Blues." (Although I guess you could make the argument that "Hunky Dory" rip-off is an aesthetic.) Mostly it comes down to the fact that I'm a songs guy - to me, the best albums are the ones with the most awesome songs, not necessarily something that's to be taken as a grand, unified artistic statement - and there's not a weak track in the bunch.
"The Bad Arts" is the best of Bejar's many epics, "The Sublimation Hour" rides its ascending guitar riff to glam perfection and "Beggars Might Ride" is a concise, breezy pop song, maybe the last of that kind that he's written. I'd feel perfectly confident putting any of these songs on a mixtape for someone and I don't think you can say that about any other Destroyer album.
....But here we come up against the difference between good art and great art -- if mixtapeability is the gold standard of an album's worth, I quit. You're trying to play the "I'm just a songs guy" card -- the rock crit equivalent of calling your opponent a latte-sipping elitist -- but the idea that "This Night" is simply an exercise in "some weird aesthetic" is absurd. Yes, the songs on "This Night" are sprawling, imprecise, difficult -- but they are also thoughtful, melodic, and, uh, songs. The record's "aesthetic" doesn't work against its songs, it's an integral part of them. It reinforces their structural irregularities and realizes their subject matter.
"This Night" is an album that plays with extremes of order and chaos -- "everything must break to be beautiful" -- sounds pile on and disintegrate only to settle, unexpectedly, into a beautiful melodic passage or a disarming lyric. The Bowie comparison is overstated but yes, "Streethawk" does sound a little "ripoff"-y, whereas "This Night" is the first -- and best -- entirely unique and inimitable Destroyer album. Yeah, sure, I would put "The Sublimation Hour" or "English Music" on a mixtape for anybody, but I don't think I would put "Goddess of Drought" or "Crystal Country" on a mixtape for somebody unless I planned to marry her -- it's the difference between a fun, fleeting crush and a big scary commitment. "This Night" asks more and it gives more.
So, so, so much more after the jump...
[Abandon Hope Ye Who Enter Here -- Ed.]
"This Night" certainly asks for more but does it really give more? I think it gives a lot of one thing, and that's "sprawling, imprecise and difficult," as you say. It's almost as if Bejar pigeonholed himself and everything had to fit into that mold. So while it may work as a unified statement, I'm not sure that plays to Bejar's strengths. One of my favorite things about "Streethawk" is that it hits you with a range of sounds and emotions. It almost seems like "This Night" (also "Your Blues") were reactions to that, sacrificing his artistic dexterity, as it were, for these attempts at a grand, unified statement. I absolutely do not begrudge him the chance to grow as an artist, but it doesn't mean it has to be my favorite thing.
In a weird way I find "This Night" to be Destroyer's most predictable album. Most of the songs will have long, drifting intros and outros, those bizarre "ba bas" (which bug me a lot less than they used to) and that same guitar tone. It also strikes me as a very "serious" album, at least by Destroyer standards. I've always thought Bejar was one of the best at being totally committed to his music without demanding that it be looked at as Important Art but I don't get that feeling with "This Night." Maybe that just goes back to what you say about fleeting crush and big, scary commitment and my inherent fear of commitment. Or maybe I'm just a simpleton and there are more lyrics on "Streethawk" that make me laugh and more references that I get.
Is "Goddess of Drought" sprawling, imprecise OR difficult? Is "Modern Painters" or "Crystal Country," for that matter? Both of those songs are more economical and action-packed than "The Crossover" or "The Bad Arts," even if you don't get to pat yourself on the back for knowing who Joy Division are. "This Night" is Bejar's funniest album; "Hey, Snow White" is an eight minute long pun, and and "The Night Moves" is a slide whistling sea shanty that shares its title with a Bob Seger hit. ("City of Daughters" is the one Destroyer record where Bejar's humor seems weirdly self-serious.) I'll agree with you that the sonics on "This Night" can be a little frustrating -- that kick drum tends to disappear at inopportune moments -- but if anything, the consistent guitar tone gives "This Night" the very liveliness that you seem to think it lacks.
"Streethawk" may have a wider range of sounds, but that certainly doesn't mean it has a wider range of emotions. On "This Night," the band covers a lot of emotional and expressive ground while forging a unique and unified aesthetic. Of course, disunity is part of that aesthetic, which is why "This Night" is Bejar's most polarizing record, and also why it's my favorite. Until "Trouble In Dreams" (my second-favorite Destroyer album, if not tied for first), Bejar's straightforwardly troubadourish songs never really rang true -- on "This Night," he finds his way to raw and unguarded moments via frenzy and disarray. "There's beauty in the bones of the dam that burst" etc. In a weird way, "This Night" is an inversion (or maybe even an implosion) of the rock and roll paradigm; excess ("ba ba ba"s, drum fills, guitar solos, etc.) is at the aesthetic core of the record, but its most emotionally resonant moments are crammed into intros, bridges and pre-chorus asides. How's that for artistic dexterity?
At this point it would probably be worth pointing out that I think our Destroyer fandom grows from slightly different places. You go for "This Night"/"Trouble In Dreams," I go for "Streethawk"/"Rubies." I guess the fact that we both count Destroyer as one of our favorite bands and have four different favorite albums only speaks to Bejar's greatness. But yes, "Modern Painters" and "Crystal Country" are indeed more action-packed than "The Crossover" and "The Bad Arts." Is that necessarily a good thing? I love how the songs on "Streethawk" have room to breathe. To make this exercise even nerdier, I equate it to the use white space when looking at the layout of a newspaper or Web site. You can't cram stuff into every last corner because then it all becomes a jumbled mess. (Note: Yes, I've seen this site's home page.) Find those most important elements and let 'em shine. His voice and lyrics have always been the main draws for me and I find him in his best form on "Streethawk." It has a great mix of one-liners as mantras ("Thou shalt not take part in or make bad art," "You've got to stay critical or die," etc.); references, both self and cultural (I was patting myself on the back for knowing the Werner Hertzog one, not Joy Division, thankyouverymuch); and his weird internal rhyme schemes and enunciations that have become his calling card.
Every defense you have of "This Night" asks for lots of digging deep and listening to the special moments in bridges and pre-chorus asides. I think you're searching for things that aren't necessarily there, like one of those nutty 9/11 conspiracy theorists. (Note to 9/11 conspiracy theorists: Please don't spam me.) But I think I've figured out why you like "This Night" best. As a worshipper at the temple of Destroyer, you are seeking to achieve the highest level of enlightenment and that involves falling in line with doctrine. And since Bejar himself told you that "This Night" was his favorite, well...
Actually, conspiracy theorists are more given to misleading and open-ended questions ("does it really offer more," "is that necessarily a good thing" etc) than they are to thoughtful and well-reasoned arguments. It should be clear by now that my interest in "This Night" is more emotional and analytical than it is fanatical. Dan told me that "This Night" was his favorite Destroyer album well after I came to that conclusion on my own. And hey, if we're going to dredge up off the record exchanges, YOU told me that selections from "This Night" worked best at the band's recent live show, which speaks well of the songs themselves and suggests that YOU couldn't get past the album's aesthetic. Your space analogy doesn't really hold here: a newspaper/Web site conveys information, an album is a work of art. (Sometimes a Web site is also a work of art, in which case "jumbled" can be a very compelling aesthetic, if it's done well.) I'm surprised that Galaxie 500's "On Fire" never comes up in reference to "This Night"; it hits a lot of the same notes, both aesthetically (all those falsetto vocals!) and emotionally (that aching, lost feeling).
"Thou shalt not take part in or make bad art" is a good line, but "I dug your poetry ... a grave and it felt good" is funnier, more dynamic, and actually engages with the music around it -- even if it doesn't look as good on paper (or in your Facebook profile). Dan will insist that he's a writer not a musician, but I think that "This Night" is the record where these two roles are most clearly working in tandem. If you like cultural references for the sake of cultural references, I have a Barenaked Ladies CD I'd love to sell you. That my take on "This Night" requires "digging deep" doesn't make it any less valid; the unwillingness to look past a record's immediate aesthetic character is part of the reason so many gimmicky bands are now "blog darlings." No, "This Night" doesn't sound as good as "Streethawk" if you're listening to it while you update your Tumblr, but if we're talking about our "favorite band," I don't see how you could fault me for having a lot invested in Destroyer's records.
How much are you asking for that Barenaked Ladies CD? Is it the one with the Chinese chicken, I believe his name was Chickety China? And man, "blog darlings," Facebook, Tumblr - those are some low blows, Lemay. Anyway, I will absolutely give you that the best Destroyer shows I've seen (I've missed some tours) were either in support of "This Night" or recent shows that featured many songs from "This Night." A Destroyer show without "Hey, Snow White" is always going to be a slight disappointment. That is a great song and there are plenty others on "This Night." But what it all comes down to, my friend (since we're referencing Canadian alt-rockers of the '90s), is that there are just too many songs on "This Night" that I simply don't like. "The Chosen Few" (baroque folk with Spanish guitar isn't my thing), "Students Carve Hearts Out of Coal" (light-jazz guitar riffs?), "I Have Seen a Light" (formless filler) ... they just don't do anything for me. Maybe you'll say that they all serve their purpose in the bigger picture of the album, but to me they seem unnecessary and instead of adding to the album's palette they distract from the great moments.
"This Night" is certainly the album where Bejar makes the most reaches (well maybe "Your Blues," which is its own beast entirely) and I think he simply swings and misses a few too many times. That doesn't mean I fault his ambition but I've always tended to shy away from big-statement/concept albums. Like I said at the beginning, the best concept, for me, is the album with the most good songs. And from 1 to 12, "Streethawk" holds that title. Maybe I'm just a simpleton, as I said. But I'm also a gentleman, so I will give you the last word. As long as you don't try to associate with something like Digg or Twitter.
The bridge in "The Chosen Few" is one of my favorite parts of the whole record! According to the Destroyer drinking game, "I'll be your map...." is the "moment of unexpected sweetness," but something about the way "clawing his eyes out, he's insane" is phrased and delivered really moves me. "Students Carve Hearts Out of Coal" and "I Have Seen a Light" are probably my two least favorite songs on "This Night," though I don't find the former to be any more or less light-jazzy than, say, "Beggars Might Ride." Ultimately, I think you're right -- "This Night" does one thing, "Streethawk" does another, I like the first thing and you like the second thing. I'm certainly not trying to convince you that "Streethawk" is your favorite Destroyer album, nor that it should be. But, hey, we're ostensibly here as critics, and I think that a debate over which album is "better" can be (and hopefully is) interesting and productive. I've been inspired by many a piece of writing to revisit the album it describes (John Darnielle's take on Radiohead's "Amnesiac" immediately springs to mind), and I do hope that this debate will encourage you to give "This Night" another shot. That said, I'm not entirely with you that "This Night" is the "grand artistic statement" to "Streethawk"s collection of great songs; I don't think of "This Night" as a concept record so much as a collection of great songs with a unique and relatively consistent aesthetic. I'm not even sure that "Streethawk" is any less aesthetically consistent than "This Night" -- its aesthetic is just more straightforward.
If anything, "This Night" seems to me like a less aesthetically calculated and more emotional record, even if those emotions are expressed in an unconventional way and requires a bit of decoding. To my ears, Bejar sounds a lot more comfortable and expressive on "This Night" (and "Your Blues", "Rubies" and especially "Trouble in Dreams") than he does on any records prior. But, hey, who knows to what extent I'm projecting my own relationship with the record onto the record itself. I certainly don't begrudge you your relationship with "Streethawk," and I've enjoyed this discussion a lot. (It sure beats "This Night is my favorite Destroyer album" vs. "Rubies is the only Destroyer album I've heard.")
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