Trouble in Dreams is Vancouver-bred Dan Bejar's ninth album as Destroyer in 12 years. This would be a make-or-break situation for most bands, the point at which their listeners stay tuned or stop caring. Destroyer leans slightly toward the former outcome because its previous effort, Destroyer's Rubies (2006), was easily the band's best, and because Bejar and whatever lineup he's recording with continue to make interesting records--restlessly creative yet completely recognizable as Destroyer's work. And yet, Destroyer remains a qualified success, almost through no fault of its own. Bejar's oblique lyrical musings and nasally, Renaissance Faire tenor are the definition of an acquired taste, and if you don't have the stomach for a certain strain of jaunty Canadian indie rock, forget it. Like most music we'd casually label "experimental," Destroyer has always been both inviting and isolating: inviting for genre-heads willing to suspend their disbelief the way they might while watching a fantasy film, and isolating for everyone else.
If you didn't know Bejar and his staunchly iconoclastic view of his own music, Trouble in Dreams might sound like Destroyer's semi-conscious bid for mainstream listenership, or at least an attempt to reach a few people outside of the already converted. "Dark Leaves Form a Thread" approaches Adult-Oriented Rock with its giant guitar hooks in the chorus, and county-rock number "The State" moves even closer to the middle of the road, actually making me a little nostalgic for Hootie and the Blowfish. But Bejar would never aim directly for terrestrial radio, so the relatively safe, freakout-free music on Trouble in Dreams probably stems from the fact that it's Destroyer's (say it with me in a sluggish voice) ninth album, the one on which the musicians understandably get tired and/or tired of trying to outpace themselves. It's reductive, but Trouble in Dreams is Destroyer's Rubies, just a tad more winded, colorless, and risk-averse.
After all, the prototypical Destroyer elements that flowered on Rubies are still in place. There are songs about women, songs about being crushed by the world, and songs that frankly don't make any sense. Bejar still sounds like Bejar (with the exception of "Blue Flower/Blue Flame" on which he becomes a dead ringer for a weary Jeremy Enigk), singing with flair and conviction. And no late-era Destroyer album would be complete without the obligatory long, epic jam (here, the long and epically-titled "Shooting Rockets (From the Desk of Night's Ape)"). The band is the same one as on Destroyer's Rubies, minus drummer Scott Morgan, and they sound just as confident on the catchy space-rock chug of "My Favorite Year" as they do on the unwieldy, prog-tapping "Shooting Rockets." For better or for worse, the sun rises and sets on Bejar's whirligig phraseology, so the success of Trouble in Dreams may rest on whether enough people enjoy hearing him sing lyrics like "I was starving in that s***house, the world" as though he were recounting a story about wizards to a group of tots, while the band follows suit.
It may not surprise anyone that I find Destroyer's relatively accessible songs the easiest to listen to. I'm not sure if the guitar-only opener "Blue Flower/Blue Flame" is a wink or a full-on tribute to Galaxie 500's "Blue Thunder," but it nonetheless retains that song's blissfully druggy, skyward-looking vibe. Then, "Dark Leaves Form a Thread" crashes in with big, galvanizing guitars, sunny synthesizers, and a solid pop-rock song structure that might actually make Clear Channel sit up and pay attention. Then comes the groovy alt-country track "The State," the sweetly elegiac "Foam Hands" and the amiable "My Favorite Year," making for a pretty great five-song run. But it doesn't stay that way. By the eight-minute centerpiece "Shooting Rockets," Destroyer is gallivanting around of its own accord, becoming tangled up in its complex cadences and lyrical gobbledygook. It all reaches a nadir on the penultimate song "Plaza Trinidad," a loopy yet oddly unexciting romp that could be held up as an exemplar of what Destroyer's detractors roll their eyes over.
Trouble in Dreams retains yet another hallmark of Destroyer's late-era discography: It's a remarkably exhausting listen. Reviewers have admonished me not to read Destroyer's albums as books, but how can I refrain when the lyrics booklet looks exactly like one (with paragraphs, chapters and so on) and Bejar stuffs his phrases with so much prolixity? The thing is, I can't say I know what this "book" is about. There are too many images and adages that require explanation, and Bejar isn't talking (key lyric: "I'll tell you what I mean by that / Maybe not in seconds flat / Maybe never"). The lyrics' tone, style and rhythm remind me of those on Joanna Newsom's excellent Ys LP in 2006, but while those lyrics worked as a continuously flowing narrative, here I just get lost in all the free-associations that are constantly slamming into each other.
Ironically, I find myself enjoying Trouble in Dreams when I'm not paying much attention (an easier proposition on the album's first half) the way Bejar probably intended for me to. The moments that I can sink my teeth into are the ones in which I can successfully ignore the various intrusions, but then, those "intrusions" may be the gems--Destroyer's rubies, if you will--that will keep fervent fans attentive and appreciative when the tenth album hits. When all is said and done, the story here is the same as it's been with every Destroyer record in recent memory: If you like hearing Dan Bejar emote in brazenly literary fashion while his band spins webs around him, you will like Trouble in Dreams. If you don't, you won't.