Better than... chasing girls and cocaine through the backrooms of the world all night.
Dan Bejar (the frontman and only permanent member of Destroyer) tosses out albums at a regular clip with sprawling pop songwriting, guitar hooks to spare, and arch lyrics about lust, art, and urban anomie that land somewhere between oblique and incomprehensible. For a certain type of dude -- say, the type likely to have started and then stopped updating a music Tumblr -- he's been the best singer-songwriter going for over a decade.
At the El Rey last night, though, it was clear that Kaputt, Destroyer's 2011 album, has changed that. Kaputt, with its beds of synths, smooth jazz sax solos, and streamlined lyrics about coke and booze and end-of-an-empire America has made Bejar and Destroyer into something else: a full-fledged band.
Sandro Perri opened. Perri, backed by a three-piece band, plays the kind of expansive, slightly experimental jazz-rock that made the Sea and Cake the background music of choice for a generation of college kids. Skittering drums, noodly guitar lines, and high-pitched murmured lyrics -- this is stuff you listen to while cramming for an organic chem final. When it works, like on his 2011 album Impossible Spaces' stand-out track "Changes," it's enjoyable and propulsive. When it doesn't, it's watery guitar skronk backed by beats that wander aimlessly like someone killing twenty minutes inside a Barnes & Noble. Perri, after announcing he was from Toronto, apologized to the L.A. crowd for the King's loss a few minutes before at the Staples Center. So polite, those Canadians.
While the curtains came down after Perri's set, the crowd started to press up against the stage. When curtains came back up, there was Bejar and company. Destroyer now tours as an eight-piece band, including a sax and trumpet player. Live, the sound is big, full-throated. By the time the kick drum started thumping, it was clear Destroyer wasn't doing that bookish and somewhat nerdy singer-songwriter shit -- this was almost body rocking.
The setlist was mainly from Kaputt, itself a neon-lit journey through a grim kind of indulgence. When the album first came out, its Steely Dan-esque yacht rock could have been mistaken for an elaborate joke. (Representative lyric from the album: "Wasting your days / chasing some girls / chasing cocaine / through the backrooms of the world / all night.") But Destroyer played every song straightforward and earnest as hell -- not one sly smile in sight. They even had the rest of the band drop out for a moment in "Downtown" to give the sax player a chance to wail a solo.
Wearing a white Ralph Lauren button-down, black slacks, and sockless black leather loafers and looking like Russell Brand if Brand had never discovered sobriety or a flat iron, Bejar seemed to be exactly the type of louche character that inhabits the songs on Kaputt. When not sing-speaking the dense lyrics to his songs, Bejar spent the show kneeling while sipping from a red Solo cup kept near the mic stand, his eyes closed and bopping along the backing music from his band. The effect was of a party host who has invited everyone to come over, but cracked open the liquor cabinet before the guests arrived and sits slightly crocked in the corner, enjoying the music he put on the stereo. At one point, a fan tossed her bra up on stage. Bejar glanced down and knocked it aside with the toe of his loafer.
If Bejar wasn't interested in giving anything to the crowd, the crowd wanted to give everything to Bejar. Fist-pumping erupted during several songs. Sing-a-longs were common. There was even dancing -- actual dancing -- at a Destroyer show. Through it all Bejar knelt and occasionally walked around, sipping from his drink, sketching off the occasional bow to the crowd, smiling at his guitar player when there was a particular bit he loved. He wasn't doing much, but then he didn't need to -- he had a band.
Personal Bias: Destroyer's 2001 album Streethawk: A Seduction is my favorite record of the 21st century, so there's very little that Bejar could do that I'm not very much going to be a fan of.
The Crowd: Surprisingly heavy on bros. I counted five backwards baseball caps within my field of vision. To my right, two guys with that odd mentholated smell of people who have been drinking hard liquor for most of the day bought each other rounds of 12-year-old scotch. "It's impossible to mess up a 12 year old," one said to the other, which in other contexts could be taken wrong.
Random Notebook Dump: Bejar's one bit of stage banter was a gem. After playing "Libby's First Sunrise," Bejar said, "That was the last song off our eighth album." When a fan shouted out a request for "Sublimation Hour," Bejar paused, considered, and replied, "That's the fourth song from our fourth album." Dude knows his back catalog.
Set list below
Savage Night at the Opera
Libby's First Sunrise
Self Portrait With Thing (Tonight Is Not Your Night)
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Bay of Pigs (Detail)