Labyrinthitis shuffles the deck and realigns the matrix for Destroyer’s best collection of songs in a decade.
Seriously: when has a Destroyer album not been an impossibly labyrinthine abstraction of clever wordplay, catchy hooks, and occasionally chaotic production choices? It’s what we’ve come to expect from Dan Bejar and his long-serving producer (and New Pornographers bandmate) John Collins: superbly crafted pop/rock paired with Bejar’s “simple refusal to write things that will make sense to everybody.” So in as much as one would expect a Destroyer album called Labyrinthitis to be no less puzzling than the previous twelve, Bejar’s latest is next-level. Labyrinthitis shuffles the deck and realigns the matrix for Destroyer’s best collection of songs in a decade.
Destroyer’s world has always felt like it’s nearing oblivion; not quite post-apocalyptic, but the four horsemen have RSVP’d and they’re all bringing a plus one. Pre-pandemic, Bejar’s songs and words felt cautionary. Labyrinthitis, written and worked up while in full pandemic lockdown, is less prescient than present-tense. It’s not always clear whether Bejar is running from or searching for the “mythic beast” stalking the halls and hiding in the shadows of his new songs. In that way, it is a perfectly allegorical album for our times. “It’s In Your Heart Now” stutters and starts like it’s trying to decide which way to take the melody before settling into its steady groove and rhythm. Bejar has never sounded more earnest than when he’s singing “You want to go home / You want to know the way / And the when and why / Somehow.” He’s never been one to wear emotions on his sleeve or lyric sheets, but there’s something in his delivery and deliberate choice of words on “It’s In Your Heart Now” that’s deeply humanizing.
Don’t get too comfortable, though. “No matter when / Don’t matter where / You’re gonna suffer / Suffer ‘neath the weight of the grandeur,” he deadpan croons on “Suffer” while his band (who contributed their parts remotely) doubles down on his 80s English new wave fixation. “June” is a breath of silky, sax-infused soft pop, until it’s not. A left turn just past the halfway mark leads to Labyrinthitis’s first flummoxing moment, where Bejar launches into a heavily manipulated spoken-word monologue that is dizzying and disorienting. It “radiates a certain glow” that lets you know we’re not listening to Kaputt anymore. It closes with a fanfare of cowbells. It might be the best song you’ll hear in 2022.
And we’re only a third of the way through Labyrinthitis, folks. The title comes from an inner ear inflammation that Bejar first learned about when trying to self-diagnose the symptoms he was experiencing, the labyrinth in question being the looping tubes and caverns in the ear that control our balance and hearing. Those two behaviours — like breathing, sight, and being allowed to go out in public — are things that we all take for granted until they’re taken from us. The album’s most beat-heavy, danceable moments (“Eat the Wine, Drink the Bread” and “It Takes a Thief”) flicker like fragments of memories of a time when it meant more that you could choose to go out dancing to synth-heavy techno in a sweaty club all night long regardless of the fact that you mostly chose to stay home in warm socks, listening to jazz. The former is the closest Destroyer’s ever come to covering “Blue Monday,” the latter bops and sways like Bejar’s been deep-diving through the Style Council catalogue. Destroyer’s most recent albums Have We Met (2020) and ken (2017) have hinted at this level of dance music influence but never realized the full potential of juxtaposing Bejar’s sardonic delivery with this level of energy and enthusiasm. They’re instant classics in the Destroyer canon.
As distinct in sound as they are, “Eat the Wine, Drink the Bread” and “It Takes a Thief” are perfectly paired in sequence as the album takes its last left turn with the full-on synths-and-atmospherics of “The States” and voice-and-guitar closer “The Last Song.” In a recent Pitchfork interview, Bejar claimed he’s “singing to a younger version of [himself], from 20 years ago” on “The States.” “I kept thinking about memories of getting across the border,” he says, “how young bands had to come up with some story in order to go to the States to play music.” Of “The Last Song,” Bejar admits, “I definitely don’t know where that song came from. It’s the last song that I wrote. I haven’t written one since. I just needed to cleanse myself.” Both songs harken back to a time and sound in Destroyer’s past, but the question remains: does Labyrinthitis bring us back to the beginning or does it signal an end? Are we intentionally trying to hide away from the world or are we struggling to find our way out of this messed-up maze? Who wants to go out or stay in? On paper, none of this should make sense, but in practice, Labyrinthitis is about as perfectly imperfect — and impenetrable — as it gets.