It makes complete sense that Destroyer is the first indie rock band to have its own wiki. Singer-songwriter Dan Bejar’s lyric sheets, heaving with quotations and allusions, beg to be read in hypertext, as they seem to constitute some hermetically sealed universe where language becomes fluid and contextual rather than definitive or static. The evolution of Destroyer’s sound has been slow over the past decade, and what began as a folkie’s tribute to Bowie has expanded to include a classic-rock rhythm section, ebullient synthesizers, and cocksure guitar solos. Bejar’s vocals have gained much in theatricality and expressiveness, but his lyrics are ever cryptic: My favorite Bejarism from the recent Trouble in Dreams is the indecipherable “This used to be my favorite palm tree/I was starving in that shithouse, the world.”
In the same way that listening to a Destroyer record is akin to eavesdropping on a secret sonic telegram sent from a planetary alien raised solely on Camus and glam-rock, watching the band live is like witnessing chemical explosions through a glass partition. One gets the sense that there’s something important, possibly dangerous, about Destroyer’s tunes, but the songwriter has encrypted his creations to the point that their significance is entirely his to bear, and we are left to marvel at the beauty of the wordplay and catchy intricacy of the guitar jams. Which makes for a pretty thrilling concert experience, come to think of it. While Destroyer’s lineup has undergone plenty of tweaking during its existence, the personnel for the band’s last two albums has remained relatively stable. Bejar, along with bassist Tim Loewen, guitarist Nicolas Bragg, keyboardist Ted Bois, and drummer Fisher Rose evince a chummy professionalism on stage, and Bragg’s pyrotechnic playing has become as essential to the Destroyer sound as Bejar’s cranky croon.
D.C.’s Black Cat, a club smaller and not as well known as the 9:30 Club but even more important to drawing live indie rock to the area, was not exactly filled to capacity. Lots of floor space at the back of the room belied a cramped atmosphere down front, with too many camera-wielding teenagers out on a Friday night with Mom and Dad’s permission (all-ages venues were often saviors of my high school years, but how I deplore the idea now that I’m a jaded twentysomething). Of course, the issue of whether the audience is into it or not is irrelevant to Bejar, who seems to be flirting with Dylan-level heights of aloofness. His initial greeting was a simple “Hello,” and with his lids shut for most of the set, we caught only rare glimpses of his coal-colored irises.
The vast majority of the material presented was culled from Trouble in Dreams, which I guess should hardly be surprising, but I silently applauded the Mohawked fanatic to my right who stubbornly shouted requests for such back catalogue obscurities as Your Blues’s “Music Lovers” and City of Daughters’ “I Want This Cyclops.” Late in the show selections included a noisily finished “Self Portrait with Thing (Tonight Is Not Your Night)” and “Certain Things You Ought to Know” (off This Night and Your Blues, respectively) but the set was primarily a showcase for Destroyer’s latest output, and what has been called Bejar’s most straightforward release translates live to some loud, satisfying rock n’ roll: “My Favorite Year” cascaded over Bragg’s trilling and Loewen’s steady hands; the “Beware the company you reside in” breakdown identified by my colleague Dave Hughes in his review of the album as the song’s crutch hushed the audience in anticipation of the swirling crescendo that immediately follows it.
The quintet marched marvelously in step through “The State,” the vagabondish, anti-political anthem that hangs on the absurdo-modernist lyric, “Somewhere in the night there’s a blue broken drum playing dead”; here, Destroyer causes us to imagine what Eliot’s Hollow Men might sound like were they to quit bemoaning their emptiness, pick up instruments, and rock their vacant hearts out. The show’s highlight may fall to the performance of “Leopard of Honor,” with Bejar preening comfortably at the front of his rollicking, shambolic accompaniment and which warranted comparisons to the best of Dylan and the Band. Although the set lasted a not-too-shabby 80 minutes, I couldn’t shake the feeling that too many of my favorites had been neglected: There was little love shown for Rubies, and “Introducing Angels,” the new album’s best ballad, was left out too.
Even with a sound that boasts loads of familiar rock tropes, seeing Destroyer live remains an event best suited for insiders. The teens in front kept scratching their heads though Bejar’s obtuse epics and Bragg’s guitar wizardry; they would probably be better satisfied by the following night’s headliner, Jay Reatard, whose music is more accessible even if one is more likely to be punched in the face while hearing it. Bejar and company, on the other hand, show no interest in converting, infuriating, or engaging their audience much. The Destroyer tour bus encompasses a weird world traveling the country, enticing congregants who may not actually understand what they are listening to but are deeply pleased by it just the same.