Towards the end of 2001, Wilco released their fourth album, and chef d’oeuvre, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot – an…
Towards the end of 2001, Wilco released their fourth album, and chef d’oeuvre, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot – an album that would cement lead singer Jeff Tweedy’s position as one of the great modern American songwriters. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot benefitted, or at least expanded, from unusually good timing, which meant that its lyrics took on an eerily prophetic aspect, being plagued with lines in keeping with, “Tall buildings shake/Voices escape singing sad sad songs”, and song titles like ‘Ashes of American Flags’. These came in the wake of the inexplicable coincidence that the album was first made available exactly a week after September 11th, and so an album that focused on an individual’s sorrow ended up capturing that of a nation.
It was Wilco’s zenith: each album that came before it became retrospective stepping stones, and each that followed felt overawed by it. However a few months prior to its release, a Canadian band released their fourth album: Destroyer’s Streethawk: A Seduction. And while Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s unfathomable context meant that it echoed its time and place, and only transcended it far later, Streethawk’s timelessness was immediate.
It became both a benchmark and a blueprint for Destroyer’s following work, and with each new album new layers were added to the sound, intricacies were deepened and pop tendencies became more and more buried. But it is the splendour with which Streethawk is entirely absorbed by those very same tendencies that makes it special.
Perhaps it is the fact that these tendencies collide so deeply with rock and blues that frontman Dan Bejar’s arrangements have often been likened to those of early Bowie, and his songwriting, perhaps by extension, to Lou Reed. The latter comparison comes to full fruition on Streethawk. He moulds each song to fit around his words, each of which is a combination of arched pauses, escalating crests and arresting breaks. They expand and contract, arch and bend, and – above all – never sit still for a moment. In a time when pop music was the playground of Britney Spears and Usher, Destroyer took it upon themselves to make a pop record that was never going to trouble a Billboard chart suffering, as it was, from a 90s hangover – but which would be treasured by those who couldn’t relate to them.
The album opens with what sounds like the opening notes to a Broadway musical, and the lines “Hey girl, come on and take a whirl in my machine”, and the invitation is extended as the song unravels into a triumphant-sounding but tragic-leaning journey through temptation, insipid existence and the need to move to stay alive.
And that’s where Dan Bejar truly finds his form, in turning music into a mirror for life. But this isn’t done through oblique philosophising, although he’s hardly the most direct of writers, and it never feels patronising. What he does is write stories: sometimes fictional, sometimes grounded and sometimes entirely haphazard, but always through his inimitable lens. He has a way of seeing the world that feels uniquely wise, and often refreshingly unaffected. There is no conflict in Bejar’s mind, between reality as he perceives it and how it is otherwise perceived. He freely switches between the language of imaginings and the language of impulse, and so Streethawk’s happiest moments are underpinned by deep sadness, and its most tragic ones are tinged by humour. And in this way it manages to feel wholeheartedly human.
Its humanity is never more palpable than on ‘Farrar, Straus & Giroux (Sea Of Tears)’, a song which – in true Bejar fashion – doubles as both a tragically stunning love song and a mournful ode to Ian Curtis. That its most heartrending line, “No man has ever hung, from the rafters of a second home” follows its most romantic, “If that is what it takes, To be a stone, a stone’s throw from your throne”, means that its tragedy is swallowed until he repeats it again, and the meaning sinks in.
Streethawk may not have achieved the legendary status of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and in all likelihood never will, but it is an album whose staying power is unmatched in those who hold it dearly. Midway through ‘The Crossover’, Bejar sings of one of his characters having “traded beauty in for fun”. But Destroyer manage to avoid this compromise with Streethawk. It is something of beauty, of fun; it is bombastic and subtle, sprawling and intricate, astute and comical. But most of all, it takes the listener on a journey of unending potential, one which has the power to affect you as deeply as you let it.