Listening to Labyrinthitis for the first time—as with any Destroyer record—is to step into the unknown. Destroyer is beyond genres, making snap changes from a tight, folksy glam rock album to an actively maculated lo-fi rock record, to an unwarned dabbling in sophisti-pop. The only real precedent which Destroyer rests on is Dan Bejar’s thin voice, and literary idiosyncrasies. The long-term fan only has this bingo card of Dan Bejar’s trademarks guiding them through the terrain, expectant of the curses, ostentations and disjunction. Dan Bejar never seems to care if you understand his music, especially within his music where even heavy mental stimulation forced on his lyrics will fail to provide tangible meaning. But by the end of this album, a weird blend is found which is really hard to write about; an immediate connection found through an odd sense of earnest relatability, while remaining completely baffling and flat out insane.
It’s impossible not to have a good time listening to “It Takes a Thief”, it’s just so obvious that everyone involved in this song had an absolute blast smashing together whatever they could get their hands on to make this kooky track. It’s almost as if they dared each other to see who can tip the boat over with zany musical ideas. But despite their best efforts the undeniable groove and energy remains unagitated. They throw a cool guitar solo, midi-strings, stretchy percussion effects, you’re half expecting kazoos to show up, and you’re fully expecting them to work. The breezy joy of this song just can’t be perturbed. And circling around the track is Dan Bejar, gleefully vamping over it all, at one with the vibe.
Nearly two years prior Destroyer served the coldest slow burn ever recorded, Have We Met, an exhausted and dilapidated corpse thrown onto us at the start of the decade, which only got heavier and heavier as each month passed. Dan Bejar was right in our ear, riddled with disgust as he utilized some clairvoyance to brood about societal dissent over robotically played funk lines and cold guitars. Simply put, it’s nice to see him having fun; he sounds sparked and alive for the first time in nearly 14 years, although it doesn’t seem to be for the same reasons as back then. To reduce his contribution on this track to “gleeful vamping” seems misleading. For most of the track he actually seems like he’s struggling to keep up with the pace, as he pleads out—
“I try to go outside, oh I try, oh I try”
There seems to be a newly raw affect to his writing here, a sense of vulnerability.
It feels like a strange comment to make because Dan Bejar’s writing style lends itself to being inherently vulnerable. The literary ideas in his writing scream a caliber of intellectualism which can only be achieved through rigorous workshopping to calculate the idea’s route in the most beautiful, soul touching way possible. A first listen never wholly gets through what the poetry is trying to evoke, it’s too vague, but the genius is slowly unraveled to the listener through multiple listens, as the lyrics attach itself to the listener’s life, until an independent understanding is found of what the fancy language means. However, the writing is electrified by the frequent but consistently startling realizations that this mind-boggling poetry is nothing more than rum founded raver. The poetry is heavily textured with spasms of foul language and random tangents, frank displays of personality and unaware hilarity intertwined amongst the pretentions. Personality backed abstract writing is itself rare, but even more so coming out of someone with as idiosyncratic and uncouth a personality as Dan Bejar.
It’s stream of consciousness writing, and he’s been consistent with his style for 26 years now, how can a sense of vulnerability not have been omnipresent? Dan Bejar’s writing has always been cryptic, but as of late he has let his love of arthouse cinema plunge him deep into the depths of the avant garde. That last album had him meddling around with surrealism for much of it to properly strike his dreary nightmares—still with his personality intact though. However, even going back a few albums there is a stark difference between his presentation then and his presentation now, for one it began to feel like Dan Bejar was a personality, not a human. He just seemed like the drunken narrator in our miserable story, he never came across like he was the one in the midst of his portentous environments, and if he ever did it felt reminiscent. He just seemed too cool and mature to be insecure, to not know what he is supposed to be doing. However here Dan presents himself bug eyed, he seems self-conscious and unsure, not steady enough to drum up an abstraction.
“I don’t know what I’m doing”
This is not to say that Dan Bejar has made his first emo record, much of his writing still lies in haze, it’s just that there are far more glimmers of non-pretention. There are myriad lines which don’t call for any analysis littered amongst the ingenious abstractions. Keep in mind that two years prior the lone line that Dan Bejar wrote with earnest simplicity was washed out with a terrifying cacophony, but now here they lay undiscriminated in the spotlight. Dan Bejar doesn’t come across as a filter for his poetry, he comes across as human. His foul mouthed, grumpy persona is still the same, but it feels grounded and existent in his evocations. He’s not forlorn on these tracks, he’s not reminiscing about how he pissed on the stage in 1992, his struggles and emotions are present. Deprived of his coat of swagger and wisdom this is Dan Bejar at his most relatable, and his writing at its most immediate.
It does have to be noted that Dan Bejar was not always presenting himself in this jaded, above it all style—Pre-Kaputt era Dan Bejar absolutely seemed like someone with problems—however there was always a limit to the legitimacy of those concerns. Where Dan Bejar’s contemporary vocal style comprises of relaxed crooning in his trademark reedy voice, 2000s era Dan Bejar’s vocal style was almost howling. He pushed his already divisive voice to an extreme, spearing his tracks with frenetic yelps, and then following Your Blues, he pushed his hollers to an even further extreme, almost as if slathering his voice over the tracks with abandon, gnarling his way through the albums. Ultimately, hearing such a divisive vocal style, which takes such exuberance and liberation to carry out, places a ceiling over how vulnerable Dan Bejar can seem. There’s an undeniable level of confidence needed to pull this off, which he did! That level of indebted confidence just made it harder to sell Dan Bejar as a quivering character.
On Labyrinthitis Dan Bejar does not sound confident. “It’s In Your Heart Now” he ambiguously blurts out; his delivery seems a little rushed and he doesn’t seem comfortable. Through much of the album he’s singing in a higher voice than usual, not reserving his voice to the extent of his 2010s work, but he’s also not committing to the holler like he was in the decade before. The final result makes him out to seem lost, he’s in this weird limbo where it’s like he’s trying to sing-talk and croon like before, but he has a knife in his side. Have We Met and Ken are both uncomfortable albums, but they rode on the fear than Dan Bejar himself seemed way too relaxed. On this album, the discomfort is shared and understood. Dan Bejar’s dizzied vocal approach doesn’t feel dramatized at all, it feels real and nuanced, and that’s because to an extent, its real confusion.
“But increasingly with this record, as we worked on it, I found it more and more disorienting and confusing to me”
Confusion is this album’s main theme— on Labyrinthitis Dan Bejar sounds confused, and his feelings are justified by the environment. Dan Bejar talked about how disco was a big influence on this album, but honestly that word seems too vulgar to describe this music. Observing the artwork surrounding the album, the font choice screams something classier. It feels far more appropriate to compare this music to Yello’s style of avant-garde. Whimsy and random electronic music, fronted by these flighty, tattered art school maestros, but delivered with a robotic competence that solely grants highbrow attention. A level of technique and artistry that gets to transcend past weird, and gets to be outré.
It’s in this outré environment that Dan Bejar is unraveled. “June” starts off as a tightly wound, low-key, electronic dance track, evocative of a jobless haze, riding on one perfect line of music and fretless bass, upon which Dan Bejar drops an already classic Destroyer line.
“a snow angel’s a f*cking idiot somebody made”
However, the slight minimalism at the beginning is dramatically traded over for immaculate maximalism. The synths begin to dominate more of the mix, while horns and distorted guitars flutter in the background of Dan’s nervous breakdown, accompanied by cowbells of course. He falls down to his knees, and collapses into a spoken word passage, with naked displays of his character meddled with twitchy abstraction.
“You have to look at it from all angles says the cubist judge from cubist jail”
All the while his voice is perverted, layered over each itself, as if he’s malfunctioning. The track is sealed off with a blunt “dump him”, neatly signing into the next track. “All My Pretty Dresses” and “Eat The wine, Drink The Bread” showcase the wonderful utility of this album as a funk-dance record, Where it felt like producer John Collins found a timeless groove, and built the songs stemming from this groove with carefree abandon, while also capturing empirical but seemingly incidental seamlessness.
However, this is where it’s hard to tell whether John Collins and Dan Bejar are trying to nuance their depiction of uncertainty and confusion, or whether they genuinely lost the plot. “It Takes a Thief” depicted a sense of a cartoonish neuroticism, but tracks like “Tintoretto, It’s for You” depict brutality. The Yello comparison loses its footing, instead a Peter Brotzman level of avant-garde mania burst’s through the track. The song limps for eight seconds to allow the sinister guitar line to fully flesh itself out and clash with the drums, which was doing the same, to cast a rock-solid, lumbering groove on the track. A piano is manically played faint in the distance as Dan cryptically informs you of death.
“A last-minute cancellation at the last super”.
Dan’s voice initially sounds distanced as he repeats out his croon of “ringing”, only to sneak up to you to whisper right in your ear.
“Tintoretto, it’s for you”
The whole song spasms out, the drums hit harder, and the cymbals crash while the reserved guitar line is replaced by an overbearing, madly composed synth line to dominate the mix, while some more synths cry out in the background for ambience. This is a spasm which only last 20 seconds, but its mark is left, and it appears Dan Bejar is left shaken by the explosion. “The ceiling is on fire,” he cries out with seemingly genuine anguish and concern but with quick progression he adapts. The same anguish is heard with the delivery of, “your little one’s sick of the sight”, but almost immediately flips to a gnarled delivery with a snarky and coy reference to himself, “insert three syllables here”. A reference to the name Destroyer, proved in the David Galloway directed music video. Dan Bejar leans the last line of the quintain into the reintroduction of the blaring synth’s and continues the next verse in this chaotic, menacing environment, affirming his dedication to the carnage.
Towards the end, following a slab of tortured strings and distorted synths, Dan Bejar leaves the scene of the crime, leaving behind a calling card of his signature “Ba dums”. It has to be noted that this track comes after “All My Pretty Dresses”, one of the most danceable songs on the record, this is a ravaging, electronic headbanger without any semblance of funk to be heard, surely there has to be meaningful dissonance here. Even looking at the two opening tracks “It’s In Your Heart Now” and “Suffer”, they evoke this pulsating, nocturnal and cool electronic vibe which are at odds with a lot of the track list. The closer of the whole album is an acoustic track, which sounds like a Destroyer song from the 2000s, how does this album have any cohesion to it?
On one level, this album does feel like a singular entity as it’s bound by this noticeable film of futurism. Even the acoustic closer is doused in reverb, because uniformly this album feels endearingly cold. This robotic, Hi-fi aesthetic lies wonderfully adjacent with Dan Bejar’s most vulnerable vocal performance since 1996’s We’ll Build Them a Golden Bridge, as the unfeeling environment is the inherent explanation for the confusion in his croons. On another level this album is really well paced, sandwiched in between the aimless haze created by “It’s In Your Heart Now” and “June” is the needed, urgent rush of “Suffer”. This synergy can be seen throughout much of the album with the exception of the end, where the dreary “The States” muddles down the end of the album to a glacial despondency when met with the equally depressive “The Last Song”.
However, there is still a sense of dissonance in the album. Sonically speaking “Tintoretto, It’s for You” still juts out of the track list—it’s hard to accept that level of vicious mania next to funky dance tracks about pissing yourself. That’s another way dissonance is found on the album, tracks like “Tintoretto, It’s for You” are tackling the concepts of death from a grand scale, which clashes with much of the microscopic character-based evocations that Dan goes for on the rest of the album. Furthermore, Dan’s very present presence on the record which I extoled about before, feels absent on tracks like “States Song” where he sings in the third person over an experience in his past, going against the present struggles his other characters are going through. But ultimately, I can’t help but feel like I’m including criticism’s about this record for the sake of doing so, because at the end of the day this album being incoherent is not an issue. I actually don’t feel that comfortable admitting I have any issue with this album.
John Collins and Dan Bejar are both underappreciated legends in their fields. They’ve been working for a while and at this stage in their career, issues regarding technical banalities are beneath them. The critiques that are going to be levied out against this album have to do with the raw artistic vision which Dan Bejar is providing us, and it doesn’t feel right to complain about it. If I did feel entirely comfortable doing so, I would have dedicated a paragraph to complaining about “the states song”. For the time being I don’t care for it, I think it doesn’t have enough literary or musical ideas to justify the runtime. But I just know that Dan Bejar’s ethos does not concern me clicking with his work immediately, six months down the line I’m going to understand why he decided half the album should sound tightly wound, and the other half should sound like it’s about to fall apart.
Let’s not forget this album is about confusion, I should probably not be complaining about this album feeling labyrinthine (It’s in the name!). Labyrinthitis could be wholly understood by me a year from now, but it also could not, and still succeed in its own right. It feels beyond pretentious to say that an album is beyond criticism and that there are no bugs, just features, but I’m totally going to do that. It’s like the white album, or a David Lynch film, yes, maybe I should question why the title track is a 3-minute instrumental bound by baby noises, but where would that take me?