For those who have been paying attention to Destroyer’s recorded output for the last decade, it should come as no surprise that moments on singer-songwriter Dan Bejar’s project’s latest studio album, Labyrinthitis, at times recall a dark disco vibe not dissimilar to the band’s 2011 full-length, Kaputt. This was a foregone conclusion anyone researching the new collection prior to putting needle to vinyl could predict due to the clientele involved. New Pornographers’ bassist, John Collins, who, in addition to playing bass and taking on various other instrumental duties, co-produced Kaputt and returned to produce and mix Destroyer’s excellent 2020 album, Have We Met, is back again to handle the same responsibilities.
Labyrinthitis opens gently, fading in with what sounds like an orchestra tuning up alongside Collins’ Peter Hook-inspired bass and a simple, steady beat. Bejar drops in early, repeating the line, “It’s in your heart now,” and not much else. The seven-minute track may be a patience-tester for the uninitiated, but for longtime Destroyer aficionados it will feel like a long hug, warmly welcoming them back into Bejar’s world. “Suffer” teases tension for almost a full minute before exploding into a retro dance number reminiscent of a late-eighties New Order single. Much as the next song’s name suggests, “June” provides an aura not unlike the feeling you get walking out into a beautiful sunny day. With its perky guitar and disco rhythm section, Bejar’s vocals are loose and fun as he sings lines like, “A snow angel’s a fucking idiot somebody made.” In the track’s last two and a half minutes, a slap bass appears as Bejar launches into an uncharacteristic spoken word moment, reciting cryptically poetic lines like, “’You have to look at it from all angles,’ says the cubist judge from cubist jail.”
With its cold synths warmed by a sporadic trumpet, “All My Pretty Dresses” feels like a song that might have fit well on either 2017’s ken or 2015’s Poison Season. Here it acts as a bridge to Labrynthitis’ centerpiece, the dynamic “Tintoretto, It’s for You”. In just over three minutes, Bejar pulls out all the stops, pivoting from a tense and urgent vocal delivery to one that’s angry and adamant, befitting the artist of the song’s namesake whose sobriquet was Il Furioso. Meanwhile, the instrumentation follows appropriately, shifting from a driving pulse to a chaotic whirlwind, ending with a manic chant matched by a brass section. The song is a standout moment on Labyrinthitis, one that has Bejar pushing himself artistically into modes of expression heretofore unexplored.
The record’s title track opens side B. An anomaly in the Destroyer oeuvre, “Labyrinthitis” is a field recording of what sounds like a toddler playing outdoors amidst a piano and moody synths that recall the ones used on Laurie Anderson’s Big Science, a landmark art-pop album released forty years prior. The album reverts again to its disco tendencies on “Eat the Wine, Drink the Bread”. Bejar’s role here feels ancillary, as he only occasionally repeats the song’s title, letting the groove control the moment. “It Takes a Thief” is Labyrinthitis’ most upbeat song in terms of both tempo and mood, and at under three minutes it’s also one of the record’s shortest. The track’s placement feels odd given its spirit when held up against its neighbors. Why the song is sequenced so close to the album’s end is anyone’s guess. Labyrinthitis’ penultimate song, “The States”, is another seven-minute number that awkwardly devolves into a spaced-out, echoey chime that weirdly lasts for the entirety of the track’s last two minutes.
For all the idiosyncrasies that inhabit Labyrinthitis’ second half, Destroyer’s thirteenth full-length is concluded with its most straightforward moment, an unpretentious ditty appropriately titled “The Last Song”. Accompanied only by an electric guitar, Bejar sings a charming song seemingly poking fun at Los Angeles transplants that includes hilarious lines like, “You get up, you stand up, you pull your head on out of nooses, you don’t know what the use is on any given day, you fake say ‘hello’, and you fake say ‘goodbye’, you tilt your head up towards the sky and say, ‘Wow, look at the sun’”. Destroyer’s latest is at times awkward and far from perfect. Regardless, more than a quarter century since its inception, it’s wonderful to hear Destroyer straying from what’s safe via Dan Bejar pushing his project into unique stylistic territories.