First-time listeners of Destroyer will probably have one of two reactions to “Trouble in Dreams,” largely depending on their frame of cultural reference. Reaction one: David Bowie, slightly bored and peculiarly subdued, has recorded another rock album. Reaction two: Dr. Evil, slightly bored and peculiarly subdued, has recorded a rock album.
Trading Bowie’s typically fast-paced, playful melodies for slow-burning and repetitive ones, and Dr. Evil’s guileless comedy for cryptic, self-referential poetry and an occasional descent into la-la-las, Destroyer delivers an album that is at times slightly boring and, at others, just peculiar and subdued.
What will be clear to even the most uninitiated listener is that Dan Bejar — the man who is all of Destroyer and part of The New Pornographers and Swan Lake — has kind of a creepy, gross voice, a sneer intoned like Hannibal Lecter with the inscrutable lyricism of Silver Jews’ David Berman. Given the often-conventional structure and instrumentation of his songs, Bejar’s voice is the font from which the weirdness of “Trouble in Dreams” seems to spring forth.
And for listeners not already steeped in the tenants of Destroyer scholarship, that may be as far as the weirdness (which is to say, the newness, the remarkableness, the worth-another-listening-ness) goes, leaving an album that is more or less a typical pop-rock offering without enough variation or inspiration to demand further exploration.
The problem with that response, however, is that Destroyer isn’t really for first-time listeners (and definitely not for people who can’t pick up Bowie references, or Destroyer references for that matter). Instead, it’s for those devout few who own every Destroyer album, who stuck with Bejar through inexplicable genre shifts and nine-minute songs and 10 albums in 12 years. “Trouble in Dreams” is not an entree in the world of Destroyer, but another course, another round for those already familiar with the Destroyer drinking game. (Apparently born in response to “Rubies,” the game includes such rules as “Take a drink whenever there is … recycling of or reference to lyrics of another Destroyer song; drink twice if it’s a song on the same album; also drink twice if they’re from pre-official releases ‘We’ll Build Them a Golden Bridge’ or ‘Ideas for Songs,’” for a total of nine rules involving mention, reference, and meta-reference.)
It’s probably unfairly reductive to say that “Trouble in Dreams” (or any other Destroyer album, for that matter) is just a scavenger hunt for the musically well informed. But it’s also completely accurate to say that Bejar’s vocals cover each of the album’s tracks like a coat of flat, distracting paint.
It’s not as if mangy singer-songwriters with limited vocal ranges aren’t ever going to weasel their way into the hearts and minds of new listeners (see Berman, as mentioned above, or Bob Dylan), but rather that Bejar, already hailed by some as one of the greatest songwriters alive, doesn’t seem willing to weasel at all. “Trouble in Dreams” is both too simple in its song structure and too dense in its content to seduce; it fails to provide an adequate toehold that might inspire neophytes to commit to the necessary legwork and download the other nine albums.