Dan Bejar’s latest is perplexing, intriguing, sometimes infuriating, but rarely less than intoxicating
If you were half-listening to Destroyer’s 13th album Labyrinthitis, you’d think it was decent. It‘s relatively tuneful, and nods towards some very trendy mid-’80s production techniques, somewhat in the style of Cut Copy, with some bonus disco rhythms and Art Of Noise chunky beats keeping the party perky. Yeah, well done; great job; let’s move on. But the more attention you pay, the more you discover everything about this album is somehow delightfully wrong. The full listening experience is perplexing, intriguing, sometimes perhaps infuriating, but rarely less than intoxicating.
Musically, all the individual elements make sense, but tend to be placed together with artful abandon, joints and seams left on display. The opening few seconds of the album are an absolute rhythmic car crash, before It’s In Your Heart Now coalesces into a goth amble, melancholic synth pads wreathing everything in a thick fog, and a quietly euphoric Manzanera guitar soars in at the three-minute mark. June is even more off-kilter. It starts like a pastiche of an Alexander O’Neal jam, Dan Bejar’s vocal peeping through lush plastic foliage of syn-toms, slinky guitar and twinkling keys, with fragments of egregious slap bass popping up unexpectedly and unpredictable synth noises and muted trumpet bimble about in the middle distance; but the strangest element is a low fruity beat poet voice which is dropped in near the end, apparently in mid-sentence, with the kind of self-assured ham-fisted edit that Fall albums had whenever the producer let Mark E Smith near the mixing desk.
Considering this knowing sonic confection, the vocal delivery is suitably arch. There are moments of simple, melodic intimacy, but these are generally balanced by a snide camp acidity, as if Colin Vearncombe from Black had been taken over by Quentin Crisp. On occasion an elegantly blasted romanticism a la Hefner can be discerned, but a more frequent reference point would be the ironic carnival patter of Dave Couse from A House (but with extra irony). Strangest of all is the theatrically arcane intonation of lead single Tintoretto, It’s For You, which opens with the hammy exclamation “Do you remember the mythic beast?”, like we’re watching the Aphrodite’s Child panto: this is Bejar as trickster imp, who will ask you three riddles, and pick your pockets whilst you consider the answers.
It’s lyrically where this album is most original and idiosyncratic, though. Sententious quips like “You’d pay good money for a million dollar view” could have come from the pen of Art Brut’s Eddie Argos, whereas poetic, painterly images such as “You lose your umbrella to the sideways rain” are more like extracts from The Blue Aeroplanes’ spidery notebooks. Elsewhere you’ll find gnostic nonsense, and the koans of potty-mouthed Zen masters: on how many albums cold you learn both that “Time and space combine and remain meaningless” and “Snow angles are just fucking idiots”? Typically the title track, where you might expect to find answers, is an instrumental, a lovely snaking synth bass overlaid with a collage of re-pitched vocal fragments and wordless child samples, sounding like both Boards Of Canada and Jean-Michel Jarre’s best, though least known, album Zoolook.
The album ends beautifully. The States is all misty-eyed keyboards and bouncy drums like The Beloved without the 3am ecstasy glow, or forgotten ‘80s act Kon Kan without the wacky-uncle wink, but the last two and a half minutes consist solely of echoing distorted notes stretching back into an extreme De Chirico perspective. Just when you think this is the end, The Last Song arrives, a little ditty with the facepaint sincerity Lou Reed managed on Goodnight Ladies. It’s lovely and moving even as it apparently says nothing. The subject of the song moves to LA and we see them “fake say” hello and goodbye, but it’s hard to say whether the track is snide or affectionate. Maybe it’s both – after all, as June notes, “You have to look at it from all angles, says the Cubist judge”.
The title Labyrinthitis might bring to mind a vast maze, which is fitting because this album gets more mystifying the deeper in you venture. It is of course actually a disease of the inner ear, which is even more apposite: this music gets into your head and makes you feel dizzy.