Dan Bejar is the sort of fussy, opaque, perpetually dissatisfied art-rocker type who’d delight in the fact that it’ll probably take me two paragraphs to explain him to you to anyone’s satisfaction. He hails from Vancouver and looks like the insouciant, chain-smoking, Sartre-quoting philosopher genius/doofus your beloved college girlfriend dumped you for; since the mid-’90s, he’s put out nine records under the (very cool, and somehow available) name Destroyer, a ridiculously random and combative and self-annihilating body of work that encourages you to have a Favorite and, more importantly, a Least Favorite. I’m partial to 2006’s knotty, elegiac Destroyer’s Rubies, which is like reading Ulysses while lazily floating down a river on a blowup toy alligator; I am least partial to 2004’s Your Blues, which sounds like a drunk merry-go-round committing suicide and is super helpful if you need to clear a crowded room in 15 seconds. There, I did it in one paragraph.
Anyways, we’re talking about him today for the only reason we talk about any musician who’s not Taylor Swift anymore: He talked shit about Taylor Swift.
I encourage you to read Bejar’s Pitchfork Q&A from Monday even if you don’t know him and don’t care about you-know-who; it’s an invaluable guide to what your average indie star is thinking in 2015, which is worthwhile info even if you regard “indie rock” as a meaningless, half-dead, possibly racist idea. I love this guy, but he’s a lot to deal with. For one thing, his imminent new album, Poison Season, sounds like a fuckin’ hoot.
The album’s 13 tracks switch between—and oftentimes combine—two distinct styles: chamber-music balladry and vamping, jazzed-up ‘70s rock. “It’s like a strange mashup of 20th century classical and, like, Destroyer at the Sands,” offers the 42-year-old Bejar, citing Frank Sinatra’s classic 1966 live album. “I was never sure if it would make any sense as music—and I’m still not really sure it does—but it was something I wanted to do, and it’s what’s closest to my heart right now.”
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The premise here is that Destroyer’s last record, 2011’s Kaputt (softer, with more trumpets) was so successful (here defined as “he played Coachella and hated it”) that he’s now actively sabotaging himself, which remains a central indie-rock ideal, and requires saying stuff like, “I really despise pop music these days, so I can’t have people walking away humming songs” and touting your new record with the likes of “I intentionally left off the two songs that everyone told me were the catchiest.” And then:
Pitchfork: So you’re not listening to Taylor Swift in your downtime.
DB: Not too much. But, because I have a young daughter who’s in school now, I had this sneaking suspicion that Taylor Swift might be the dominant cultural theme of her generation and that I should listen to a song by her because I had never heard one. This was a couple of months ago. So I checked it out, and it gave me the willies. It wasn’t a reactionary thing. It was more from just hearing these hack nu-country melodies with dumb lyrics and some very advanced Pro-Tools production techniques that could dazzle certain music critics. I’m familiar with the fact that people who I count as intelligent are really into this woman’s records, and I don’t want to make this about Taylor Swift. I just generally have a more elemental take on things and I can’t hold up Taylor Swift as being either a figure of light or a figure of darkness because I feel like it brings down my poem to a level that’s too mundane. [laughs] So instead of being flabbergasted or outraged or dismissive, I really just want to pretend that those things don’t exist. Maybe I’ve always done a little bit of that, but I’m really steering into it now.
We should note immediately that the interviewer (a fine critic and human who I happen to know for a fact is a Ke$ha fan) brought Ms. Swift up, and that this is fairly mild criticism given the context (on the internet, about a woman). But the “dumb hack” stuff has still enflamed all the as-yet-unmuted rock critics on your Twitter feed, given that we can’t get enough of any Indie Rocker vs. Pop Star action. (Let’s not get bogged down in the Poptimism debate, which boils down to “Do critics like Beyoncé too much now” and is otherwise a mess; if somebody at a party starts angrily insisting on one side or the other, put Your Blues on the stereo and get the hell out of there.) Underground guys have been dissing overground ladies for years (Miley Cyrus used to get this a lot); it’s a dick move, but usually a charming dick move, and it’s helpful in clarifying just what the hell your favorite semi-obscure musicians think “pop music” means, and how performative their hatred of it can get.
I still believe that Taylor Swift is capable of being both an excellent musician and a terrible internet person, and that she’s generally more sophisticated than her myriad haters give her credit for, and moreover she actually started this war on 2012’s (this song title does not help my argument) “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” by lambasting Jake Gyllenhaal with the line And you would hide away and find your piece of mind / With some indie record that’s much cooler than mine [giggles]. This is what I know to be true, and what I suspect she knows as well: Most indie types who make a big public show of refusing to make vapid, catchy, enjoyable pop music want you to think that they can, but nobly choose not to, when the truth is, they just can’t. It’s nice to think that mashing up chamber-music balladry and vamping, jazzed-up ‘70s rock is more difficult, more elegant, more laudatory. But pure pop is harder than it sounds; the easier it sounds, the harder it gets. Hate on it if you must, but dismissing it as the easy way out is the easy way out.
So most people who take this approach are lying, but the funny thing is, I don’t think Bejar is among them. I may have neglected to mention that he’s also a member of the New Pornographers, the best power-pop band of the last 15 years, reliably dropping three of four incongruous deranged-uncle rants onto each of their albums, like Kramer busting through Jerry’s door and retreating just as brusquely. (There is a certain visual similarity.) His songs are lyrically inscrutable and unsettling by design, but if they get their claws in you, look out: The night of George W. Bush’s reelection, I put the frantic, vaguely nauseating “Execution Day” on repeat and on blast, understanding none of it, absorbing all of it. Or take “War on the East Coast” up there, from last year’s splendid Brill Bruisers, and count how many Top 40 hits from 2014 have an earworm as insidious as Blondes / Brunettes / Paper jets. Think of Bejar as a self-loathing pop genius desperate to subvert what he fears are his baser impulses—”bringing down my poem to a level that’s too mundane,” which is totally something your college ex-girlfriend’s butt-munch of a new boyfriend would say—and succeeding in looking like a failure.
All of which makes him a pain-in-the-ass human, a phenomenal Q&A subject, and an alluringly exasperating artist. I will listen to his new record, and probably enjoy it, but inevitably find myself straining to hear the two songs he deemed too appealing to include. Good for him, I guess. Taylor Swift has her issues, but this, mercifully, is not one of them.
Rob Harvilla is Deadspin’s culture editor. Yes, there is one. He’s on Twitter.
Taylor photo by Getty; Dan Bejar pic by Fabiola Carranza.
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