Destroyer’s Topsy-Turvy Idea Redeems Bejar’s Theatrics

There are performers you can’t enjoy unless you learn to ignore or tolerate some aspect of their music. If the challenge is worth it, what seemed at first annoying or bewildering later seems essential. In the case of Destroyer, the obstacle is the voice of singer and songwriter Dan Bejar. A native of Vancouver, Mr. Bejar sings in a concocted, faux-British rock-’n’-roll accent, a melodramatic delivery that’s part David Bowie, part dungeon master. His sense of pitch is often approximate. Breathless stage whispers give way to full-throated howls. It’s such an off-putting, willfully mannered performance that it’s hard to understand the point.

Destroyer’s Rubies, just out on Merge Records, is the most compelling reason yet to grapple with that voice and give it a chance to justify itself. On Destroyer’s seventh LP, Mr. Bejar, who’s also contributed to the three albums by acclaimed Canadian collective the New Pornographers, has assembled an engaging batch of songs and an accomplished group of musicians to back him. The tracks are immediately infectious, and they’re embellished with arrangements that reveal more and more details on repeat listens. Sonic surprises and varied textures abound, and yet they form part of a coherent idea.

Mr. Bejar is equally adept at sprawling, improvisatory-sounding vocal melodies and concise, insistent tunes. He often incorporates both into one song, as on the nine-and-a-half-minute opener, “Rubies.” It’s a great introduction, dotted with instrumental flourishes and outlandish, allusive lyrical quirks.

Against the tense, galloping strums of an acoustic guitar, Mr. Bejar tells a hushed fairy tale set in a hallucinatory version of Vancouver, crowded with characters, places and expressions lifted from pop songs, including some of his own. He mentions “Proud Mary,” the “dock of the bay”; he borrows other phrases from Dylan, Led Zeppelin, the Smiths and, twice, from the titles of his previous albums, one of which also alludes to the Beatles. It’s nonsense, but with disturbing paranoid undercurrents: “…Doctor, / do your worst, cut me open. / Remove this thirst. Hidden but near / a series of visions, I won’t repeat them here …. ”

Musical elements drop in—flickering keyboards, electric guitar tones that range from liquid to sandpapery—and drop out. The main drum tracks are augmented by isolated, distant-sounding snare volleys. The beat races, then marches, then drifts. The song builds and surges to a grand climax before slipping without warning into a sparse, intimate coda. Mr. Bejar’s elliptical verses carry on for another few minutes, accompanied only by an intentionally distorted acoustic guitar. When it’s over, you feel like you’ve stepped out of someone else’s dream.

The catchier, more succinct side of Destroyer is represented by the ambling country swing of “Your Blood,” and also by the mellow pop of “Painter in Your Pocket,” which develops as patiently as “Rubies.” For more than a minute, the instrumental backing consists only of suggestions: one-note guitar swells, subliminal vibraphone chimes, gentle bass figures and drums that break in furtively, resonating steadily, as if from afar. A bell-like guitar riff enters on cue after the first chorus, and not until another minute after that does the whole band kick in, finally fleshing out the melody that has been keeping it all together (and holding the listener’s attention). As on many of the other tracks, the use of major- and minor-seventh chords produces a shimmering and melancholy feel. Even on the bounciest numbers, a hint of elegy intrudes.

Throughout the record, Mr. Bejar’s vocal phrasing occasionally subverts the meter: He crams more syllables into a bar than would seem possible, or accents unexpected beats in odd verbal clusters. At other moments, the music drops a beat or two when there are no words to fill the time. The band ably mirrors these gestures, making them sound organic but rhythmically disorienting all the same. “And I was just another / West Coast maximalist / exploring the blues / ignoring the news / from the front,” goes one overflowing pronouncement.

Eventually, the lyrics start to divulge bits of meaning and weird logic. On “Watercolours Into the Ocean,” Mr. Bejar recalls “Listening to ‘Strawberry Wine’ / for the 131st time”—probably a reference to one of My Bloody Valentine’s more obscure songs. “It was 1987, it was spring,” he continues, “…Now it’s 1987 all the time.” He’s reminding us of the way people construct personal soundtracks—and then taking that tendency to an obsessive extreme. On “Looter’s Follies,” an expansive waltz halfway through the record, he asks with genuine impatience, “Why can’t you see, / That a life in art / And a life of mimicry / —It’s the same thing?!”

And with that, we get the point of the fabricated accent and the exaggerated delivery: Authenticity is boring. The mannered voice is a signal of Mr. Bejar’s intention not merely to cobble together an album of catchy tunes, but to construct a topsy-turvy artificial universe—the kind invented by eccentrics in secluded apartments—in which nothing exists outside of pop music, and the events and emotions of a person’s life come to depend on remembered lyrics and stray guitar parts, rather than the other way around. It’s 2006; it’s almost spring. Listen to Destroyer’s Rubies enough, and it could be 2006 all the time.

Destroyer’s Topsy-Turvy Idea Redeems Bejar’s Theatrics