Solo projects can make or break an artist’s reputation. The stakes are much higher; not only can an individual receive great acclaim for his or her work, but he or she can also receive scathing criticism without the shield that a band’s collective identity provides. Dan Bejar, a multi-instrumentalist for The New Pornographers, took on that risk when he started putting out music in his personal project, Destroyer, back in 1996. The wager paid off. Destroyer’s latest release, 2006’s “Destroyer’s Rubies,” is a shining example of Bejar’s brilliance.
“Rubies” cannot be taken lightly. The album is like a fine cologne — it is impossible to judge the first time it is experienced. Rather, you have to sit down and allow it to develop in order to fully appreciate the myriad elements in the composition. Its remarkable complexity initially obscures its artistry, so listening to “Rubies” just a handful of times truly does not do it justice. Each additional venture into Bejar’s world reveals entirely new meanings and accents that display the music in an entirely different light.
The album opens with its title track, a nine and a half minute-long opus. Featuring dueling electric and acoustic guitars, a shuffling drum beat and haunting backing vocals, the song is definitely one of the album’s standout tracks. It showcases Bejar’s ability to layer melodies and develop thematic elements throughout his songs; but, unfortunately, it is marred by snare drum accents that come off as frantic, sometimes shattering the foreground’s mounting harmonies. Nevertheless, the track sets an ambitious tone for the album and demonstrates Bejar’s unique musical intuition.
Although the album’s hallmark is its intricate musicianship, its foundation of simple guitar, bass and drums arrangements makes “Rubies” both accessible and endearing. With occasional vibraphone, piano and organ flourishes, Bejar adds subtle highlights to his music that truly makes it singular.
Still, not all of the additional instrumentation is welcome or appropriate. The presence of a baritone saxophone in several tracks, including “3000 Flowers” and “Priest’s Knees,” is cacophonous at times and doesn’t mix well with the album’s overall tone, which is a blend of folksy twang, mournful blues and indie rock sensibilities. Fortunately, the sax is confined to the background for the most part and rarely displaces the guitars or vocals in the limelight.
With regard to vocals, Bejar doesn’t so much sing as talk his way through songs. His style bears a striking similarity to The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle, marked with a striking sense of candor and naked emotion. Taking advantage of this, Bejar weaves intricate narratives about people and places that become increasingly more labyrinthine as the listener attempts to unravel the countless literary references he employs.
Maddeningly, Bejar’s poetic lyrics are occasionally undermined by his affinity for cliches, such as the couplet “All good things must come to an end/ the bad ones just go on forever” in the album’s opener or “Desperate times call for desperate measures/ I wanted you, I wanted these treasures” in the third track, “European Oils.” Such examples are, thankfully, exceptions rather than the trend. Overall, the lyrics are a beautiful melange of sheer brilliance and utter nonsense. Instantly quotable and only belatedly comprehensible, they are at once both puzzling and poignant.
Despite his many strengths, Bejar lacks the stamina to keep up his musical intensity for the duration of the album, which is less than an hour long. While most tracks exude passion and sensitivity, some, like the lackadaisical “A Dangerous Woman Up To A Point,” fall flat and fail to demonstrate the same flexibility of expression. Their highs are not nearly as powerful, and their lows feel more apathetic than subdued. Taken in the scope of the entire oeuvre, these quarrels are minor and barely detract from the enjoyment of the album.
Bejar achieves a remarkable feat with “Rubies;” it features complex song structures and intellectual lyrics without being intimidating or overly pretentious. Oddly familiar and refreshingly different, “Rubies” is the pinnacle in Destroyer’s catalogue, and in Bejar’s career.