'We'll Build Them a Golden Bridge', by Ronnie Scott

Should the realities suggested by Destroyer and Javier Marías be augmented into one hyper-specific über-world?

Illustration by Magic Sweater.

I.

When I went to Spain I saw Javier Marías everywhere, or a version of Marías that had been his face before: the author shot from the first paperback he’d published in English, which must’ve been taken two decades ago. Never mind that I was not in Madrid, where Marías would have been living, nor that the bars I drank in had banned smoking some months in the past, meaning Marías would presumably not have ventured into them (in the photo he is smoking and he wears the vice with pride; in an op-ed, he invoked the smoking ban as proof of correspondence between the ideologies of Franco era and democratic Spain). There are many men in that country who wear Marías-like expressions: lips pursed as though about to inform you of your death, eyes dreamy and sleepy enough to lend their words some cred: Don’t blame me, there’s nothing calculated, I only speak the truth.

I was on my way to see Dan Bejar, the Canadian singer who fronts the band Destroyer. He is only spiritually a Spaniard. An iconic photo situates him in El Escalon, a Majorca bar, an enigmatic smile on the verge of appearing. I did not see anybody in the bars who looked much like him.

Apophenia is the clinical term for the compulsion to build patterns in random data; afflicted persons undergo the “specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness”. Think real-life conspiracy theorists, or every character in a good Umberto Eco mystery. Recent works by both Destroyer (Kaputt) and Marías (Your Face Tomorrow) flirt with apophenic concepts, without themselves being apophenic – since apophenia is also defined as the unmotivated quest for connections, and both works provide motivations aplenty. Kaputt’s lyrics wander through abstract psychic territory before veering into statements so concrete they all but force you to link them to events salient and unseen (“Hey, Mystic Prince of the Purlieu at Night! I heard your record, it’s alright…”). In Your Face Tomorrow, a trilogy of books, a man named Jacques Deza is recruited by a mysterious group that might thrive on a certain “lack of definition” but is essentially a small coterie of spies. A Spaniard in Britain riding out the separation from his wife, Deza’s job consists of “listening and noticing and interpreting and reporting back” – but, critically, Deza is also invited to speculate, undertaking what he calls “imaginative duties” and producing what the organisation terms interpretations or reports. For listeners to Bejar’s records, apophenic experiences are supplied, while making meaning of outwardly harmless experiences is the professional charter of Jacques Deza.

Through their intersections with the extratextual world, Bejar and Marías have each, for a long time, been the ideal quarries for fans of music and literature who are meaningfulness-prone: both creators are highly memeable. Among the meme-tracking devices Destroyer has inspired over the years are: a poster-sized infographic by the designer Jez Burrows that plots the frequencies of words, sounds and phrases across just one record; a blog-based guessing game that tried to match song titles to their authors on an album released by one Bejar-embellished supergroup; and most famously, several versions of a drinking game that was formalised and popularised by the critic Carl Wilson (drink twice for lyrics that give advice, entreaties, orders in cryptically figurative forms: “don’t ride the silver rocket,” “please spring us, Madeline, from these rustic jails of lust”). While no Marías drinking game has yet been invented, Vendela Vida devoted a large part of an essay on Marías to a discussion of the author’s foot fetish (and every book Marías has since published has paid just as delighted attention to girls’ legs).

…both their catalogues have a way of being drawn fairly helplessly into the real world (which is of course the staging ground for games like these).

Either game would be so sure a route to drunkenness that perhaps better would be to play each artist’s drinking game through the other’s catalogue. When Deza derides “the coquetry of someone who enjoys appearing mysterious,” drink for ‘vicious barb levelled at persons who cultivate the kind of artifice that Destroyer himself cultivates even while levelling such barbs.’ Or: one Destroyer track begins “So you had the best legs in a business built for kicks” – since this (a) invokes the music industry, (b) vaguely mocks a subject who has bought into its lies, and © puns, it’s especially pleasing, for this lyric is Destroyery in triplicate and still finds the semantic space to invoke Marías’s pedal love.

Except: it doesn’t. Except, except: neither Bejar or Marías is a stranger to such recombinant activity, since both their catalogues have a way of being drawn fairly helplessly into the real world (which is of course the staging ground for games like these). Case in point: the island kingdom of Redonda, in the Caribbean Sea. Redonda was claimed in 1865 as an independent kingdom because (as legend goes) Queen Victoria viewed the mile-long island as an absolute non-threat (there is no fresh water, apart from rain, and it’s solely inhabited by seabirds and feral goats). The claimant gave his son the kingship as a fifteenth-birthday present, though that son’s primary occupation was writing fantasy and adventure novels. Upon the son’s death in 1947, he passed the kingship to John Gawsworth, whose “erratic” behaviour included naming multiple future heirs (requirements sometimes included naming children after him). Marías’s novel All Souls included a portrayal of Gawsworth, which “so affected” the generally accepted heir that he abdicated in favour of Marías in 1997. Marías has since used his kingship to confer titles “upon people he likes,” with Francis Ford Coppola, J.M. Coetzee, and Alice Munro among the many artists he has blessed with dukedoms and duchessdoms.

The Kingdom of Redonda seems fictional, and in some ways it is, but there’s something about the way Marías later folded this story into the sort-of-All-Souls-sequel, sort-of-memoir Dark Back of Time that suggests the real world and his fiction have never been all that far apart. That book’s title is a phrase Marías had often used in his fiction (and it appears again, more than once, in Your Face Tomorrow); this itself paraphrases Shakespeare (his “dark backward and abysm of time”). In a typically expository passage, Marías calls this the kind of time that “happens only in a sphere that isn’t precisely temporal, a sphere in which writing, or perhaps only fiction, may—who knows—be found.” To read Marías and hear Destroyer—who himself likes to promote lyrics to song titles, and who pollinates his records with names and phrases from other Destroyer records, and who has early Destroyer songs show up on New Pornographers albums, and who makes frequent callouts to songs by different bands (Bejar’s catchiest singalong is just a Joy Division paraphrase)—is to visit, or at least catch a glimpse of, “time’s dark back.” Both artists’ works are fundamentally myth-making enterprises: songs and books that reference songs and books that aren’t yet in existence; characters that may or may not be Bejar or Marías themselves; events that might be real or could be totally made-up, or transmogrified into a bit of both through a complex back-and-forth. When both artists situate their catalogues along this fictive “dark back”, it’s almost surprising that the one time in Your Face Tomorrow that Marías writes the word “kaputt”, he or his translator only spells it with one ‘t’ (only in the logic of time’s dark back is this ‘quotation’ a reference – Your Face Tomorrow was published first).

When I told a friend I was writing about the similarities between Destroyer and Marías, his response was downright venomous: he thought I was arguing something along the lines that Bejar had certainly encountered Marías’s work (or vice versa). But the pleasure of this exercise is that it feels both directed by and untethered from internal clues supplied by the artists themselves. In non-diagnostic life, apophenia is called a ‘suggested match’, and as with food, where one increases joy by combining different flavours, linking a band to a writer is as natural as art itself. As much as I like to imagine that Bejar and Marías would enjoy each other’s outputs, this is not a lineage project of the non-dark-time kind. The pairing feels epicurean because it creates more of two given pleasures than each seems designed to give. As Bejar himself at one stage puts it, on an early record: “nothing does a body good like another body.”

II.

Kaputt and Your Face Tomorrow are neither artist’s best works—these spots are reserved for This Night and Dark Back of Time—but each crystallises what is best about each artist’s oeuvre into its most consistent-feeling form. Early-career Destroyer records were aesthetically capricious, excursing briefly into MIDI and all-out prog (“I’ve never been very constant in my professional interests,” Deza says, in Your Face Tomorrow). Two later records settled naturally into relaxed rock arrangements – perhaps too relaxed, since Trouble in Dreams, the second record Bejar produced in this aesthetic, failed to excite any particular critical froth (and Destroyer is nothing if not a critical favourite).

Considering Trouble in Dreams’s reception, Kaputt is a terrific seventh album: a relatively adventuresome aesthetic vacation that both reinforces and recontextualises all that’s great about the band. Bejar had always been prescient about musical trends, but interpreted them too obliquely to really hit the zeitgeist hard. With Kaputt, however, he “got lost in [Roxy Music’s] Avalon … the reverbs, the drum sounds, the percussion” – infecting himself with the right elements of an aesthetic that crested in certain buzz bands just as Kaputt was released. The vocals “sound like something that was tested on a sleeping baby,” because they were; when Bejar went into the studio he “wanted to keep that quietness.” Nitsuh Abebe pointed out that far from a fashionable throwback, the “smooth jazz” sound, with its flute solos and liberal slathers of sax, formed “the backdrop to a world that feels cryptic, weary, and completely off-center.” None of these three qualities were themselves foreign to Destroyer songs, but what was new was the narrator constructed through their precise triangulation. Kaputt spins a warm world around a lost and lonely vocalist, and it’s the narrator’s place in this environment that’s constantly perturbed. The Bejar of past records had at different moments seemed wise, wild, obscure, determined, bratty, sexy, fun. What he’d never seemed was what such characters inevitably become: further from the world, less willing to engage with it, but more liable to make precision cuts into the behaviours of other citizens anytime he stops to think about them long enough.

Kaputt spins a warm world around a lost and lonely vocalist, and it’s the narrator’s place in this environment that’s constantly perturbed.

This also describes Jacques Deza at the point we meet him in Your Face Tomorrow (we’ve met him before in All Souls, the short Oxford book; and in some sense we’ve always been spending time with Deza, because Marías’s narrators so often feel like vessels for their author). In the wake of Deza’s separation from his wife, he fits well into the particular world of espionage presented in the book: the mentor who introduces Deza to the organisation imagines it’s gone downhill, which is tres John le Carré, suggestive of superannuated glitz. This is not the only possible mode of the modern spy narrative—see the television series Alias—but the air of shabby glamour settles well around Deza, who grapples with the moral underpinnings of his work but always finds something in it to (just barely) valorise.

His recruiter, Tupra, a harder man than he, is closely aligned with the organisation’s values, perhaps because he is their sole determinant. His “continental mouth” is always amused by whatever he’s seen, which is everything; there’s a comic moment wherein Deza chances a glance at Tupra’s shoes (sober brown lace-ups) and Tupra instantly asks: “Is there something wrong with my shoes?” But mostly, Tupra uses silence to wreak “havoc on the impatient and the loquacious”: he only ever speaks when it’s unambiguously advantageous, because in Tupra’s hands (and Deza’s) the very act of vocalisation is enough to undo a man.

“How can I not know today your face tomorrow, the face that is there already or is being forged beneath the face you show me or beneath the mask you are wearing, and which you will only show me when I am least expecting it?” The question is, of course, rhetorical, because Deza is recruited precisely for his ability to telegraph how someone will behave tomorrow, today. While he occasionally wrestles with the apparent life-or-death consequences of his prognoses—as well as ruminating on how uniquely unsuited the job is for a Spaniard, since “such an absolute lack of preambles and circumlocutions does not always sit well in my language”—Deza’s confidence in those prognoses never really wavers. When he says they “[carry] a weight of conviction without having been subjected to a single argument,” he’s more awed than troubled by the powerful position this puts him in. In Destroyer songs, “instant verdicts” like these are flung about with such ease that the listener might conclude, similarly to Deza’s mentor, that “one shouldn’t really ever tell anyone anything”: one of the funniest lines on Kaputt is a sweet-sounding breakdown in which Bejar describes, breathlessly, a message he’s sent to the press: “Don’t be ashamed or disgusted with yourselves. I’ve thumbed through the books on your shelves.” The noodling guitars that back up Bejar’s comment might sound absolving, even hopeful, but make no mistake: that arrangement is the savage work of a concern-troll. You can almost picture Bejar shrugging once the mic’s switched off and adding (after Deza): “You did ask me for my impressions.”

Both works rely heavily on dreamy atmospheres and the illogical progressions dreamers can’t help but follow. Bejar has always free-associated both lyrically and sonically; when his songs bust open into pure pop-music candylands you can bet they’ll do so after forceful movements that build themselves upon the stoic algorithms of hard-assed (even stadiummy) rock. Tonal spikes in both works manifest as solid images that appear sharply, and then deliquesce just as fast (Deza notes that everything he does in England feels absent of consequence, the result of performing acts in an unfamiliar language). The dreamy atmospheres, and their ability to juxtapose moods and textures, are also the sources of uncomplicated comedy – as when Deza first hears of botox and is increasingly horrified as he makes the lexical link to botulism, or when Destroyer references a really modern song.

Yet despite their mutual dreaminess, both Deza’s and Bejar’s worlds are ultimately spaces that operate in harsh, binary terms. Deza’s prognoses have life-or-death consequences, and while Kaputt’s tracks drift together into a gorgeous, utopian soundscape it’s still mostly a record composed of purposeful hooks – which is to say that it engages fully with the language of pop and rock music, which in Destroyer’s worldview is also life-or-death. So, for all the beauty suggested by Kaputt and Your Face Tomorrow, it’s only a matter of time before the flipsides of their worldviews become clear: through physical and quite undreamlike trouble.

For Kaputt, it’s the title track (and lead single) – six minutes in which the album’s lushness finally foams over into an explicitly blissy length of pop. As a working component of an album, it’s a thematic crescendo, but as an individual track it begins in medias res: “Wasting your days, chasing some girls, alright, chasing cocaine through the back rooms of the world, all night.” Bejar could be spinning a bedtime story for the person Deza isn’t: the horny Spaniard tumbling headlong from a marriage and into an expat life full of intrigue that could conceivably never stop, except for the brief perspective borrowed from the moment of this song – long enough to appreciate the splendour of the lifestyle. In fact, it soundtracks the experience of another character in the book: De la Garza, a fellow countryman whom Deza spies in a London dance club one fateful night.

Destroyer’s music is full of allusions to fateful nights that are ambiguously weighted in terms of wonder and awe – This Night is an album drenched with them, and when similar nights make appearances on subsequent recordings, it always feels like they’re referencing that album and its songs. On this “long, erroneous, disagreeable night”—very like the tail ends of most songs on This Night, when the hubris drops away and the emotional timbre reveals itself as not at all victorious (or only quietly so)—De la Garza is the last person whom Deza wants to see. The jacket he wears has shoulder pads and is in any case too large; there’s a hoop earring involved, as well as a gauche hairnet that recalls Spanish bullfighters of the 18th Century. This is perhaps the worst part, or emblematic of the worst: like Deza, De la Garza is a Spaniard in the UK, but unlike Deza, he mangles the dignities of both countries. Marías’s characters are often suspicious of false claims to nationality; Your Face Tomorrow levels multiple accusations at “bogus Englishmen”, just as Destroyer, in a turnabout, comments in a recent song that English people on the Mediterranean are some of the worst people there are. Deza, who admits he doesn’t go out clubbing very much, describes De la Garza as a “dude or groover or guy” – a Spaniard dressed like a rapper in the “brutal” world of London discos. “Brutal” is a particularly worrying choice of descriptor, coming from someone known to telegraph events that have yet to pass.

De la Garza has a “jewel-encrusted” navel, which is catnip for Destroyer fans; his characters ride jewel-encrusted roans on two successive records. Add to this that De la Garza is co-clubbing with a famous Spanish writer who is “deaf to the disco music around him,” an “idiotic music lover and poseur”, for one of Destroyer’s best songs is called ‘The Music Lovers’ (and this is one of the tracks that cites those jewel-encrusted roans). Granted, ‘The Music Lovers’ is a sweet song and the roans laudable stallions – even so, these phrases enforce the essentially accurate notion that De la Garza is a nightmare composite from Destroyer records past. There are many possible interpretations of Destroyer’s band name; among other things, it helps make sense of Bejar’s scorched-earth policy regarding his own sound as it evolves from record-to-record. But if his lyrics are to be believed—and if not those, then what?—the impulse largely targets foreign bodies in his own musical ecosphere. In other words: he doesn’t like dudes or guys or groovers very much.

So, when Deza lures De la Garza to the club’s toilets with the promise of cocaine, it’s easy to believe that it’s De la Garza who is chasing cocaine through the backrooms of Destroyer’s world: after all, De la Garza has also come to this club to chase girls. When Tupra does arrive with the coke, he also withdraws, as if from nowhere, the subject of everybody’s nightmares: a sword.

A “primitive blade, a medieval grip, a Homeric hilt, an archaic tip, the most unnecessary of weapons or the most out of keeping with the times we live in,” Deza thinks: “anachronistic, arbitrary, eccentric, so incongruous that the mere sight of it provokes panic, not just visceral fear, but atavistic fear too, as if one suddenly recalled that it is the sword that caused most deaths throughout most centuries.” Worse, it appears “as if by magic.” Later, when Deza rebukes Tupra about the sword, Tupra responds: “Oh, you can laugh now and say it’s theatrical or anachronistic or even rusty, but you didn’t see the look on your face when you saw that sword in my hands. … It seems impossible to wield it in vain; it seems impossible to do anything else but use it.”

For the transmedial aesthete it’s now way more than a convergence – it’s an all-out synaptic Chernobyl.

Tupra hasn’t used it in the sense he means here; he’s stopped the blade just short of De la Garza’s throat. As they leave the bathroom, Deza engages in a prolonged imagining in which De la Garza’s ghost—killed in this scenario—recounts what’s happened in the bathroom, saying, “They came like thunderless lightning: one did the destroying while the other kept silent.”

Hey, Destroyer has a song called ‘Notorious Lightning’! Destroyer loves to destroy! For the transmedial aesthete it’s now way more than a convergence – it’s an all-out synaptic Chernobyl.

Deza has a barely-explained thing against “fantasy chic” at different points in the novel (which is itself odd, because say what you want about Marías, he is not an underexplainer). It’s a social condemnation of De la Garza when Deza flippantly explains that “No one knows more about world literary fantasy, including the medieval and the palaeo-Christian… Which, as well as being valuable and useful, is also tremendously chic, you know.” Knowing that Tupra read medieval history at Oxford, Deza takes a dig at him: the sword is “perhaps a youthful fantasy”, then? Tupra replies that Deza should not dismiss ideas born of the imagination: “They’re not within the grasp of just anyone, only those of us who see and who keep looking.” The sword may be dream material – but so are Deza’s labours as a precognitive spy. To make a Destroyery pun of it, it’s the original dream job – and therefore both attractive and repulsive for those predisposed to destroy.

III.

A critic on the jacket of my copy of Your Face Tomorrow Volume 1 describes it as a “work of urgent originality,” which I can’t help but feel might fatally mislead. It’s wrong to call either Marías or Bejar vital or of-the-moment because both are so firmly entrenched outside the present day, whether that’s expressed through surface anachronisms (who hasn’t heard of botox?) or more chronic orientations along time’s dark back. Marías in particular has stated that he writes in order to lose time – which of course seems both an untenable position (don’t we all just want to live?) and an eloquent way of saying what we’re in fact all doing, all of the time. For Deza, though, time is an enormous and ongoing problem: it confuses him and slips past him and expels him from its progress and all the while maintains the illusion that it’s a gift (by which he concludes “it’s best not to be dazzled”).

Bejar has made a career-long character of this same man-expelled-from-time. When he’s issuing correctives to fellow citizens in his songs, he’s usually pulling them into line with a concept of integrity that appears to emerge from a nebulously-existent past; he appears to both value decorum and be sensitive to the human nature it conceals, which makes him kind of an English social novelist working in an indie rock form (it helps that he’s written more than one ode to labour unions). His tracks are all intertextual jawbreakers, but most of all they’re historically allusive – either through wholesale historiographical enquiries or near-throwaway ideas, such as how he titled Kaputt’s last track ‘Bay of Pigs’.

‘Bay of Pigs’ is one of those Destroyer songs that plays once the great nights are done with, when broken, scattered characters are all that’s left behind. Danceability slips in and out of the song; mostly it’s way off in the distance (the song is ambient disco), with Bejar situating himself for the listener in the first few lines: he’s alone in the dark, watching ships disappear in the rain. When Deza riffs worst-case-scenario-style on the dangers of elocution, he imagines confidences being betrayed by “the drunken loquacity of an insomniac: a night or a day when the person talking talked as if there were no future beyond that night or that day.” As such, he hopes that no one ever comes to him and says “Listen.” In the first words of ‘Bay of Pigs’, Bejar takes this possibility and makes it worse again: “Listen… I’ve been drinking” – words that no one wants to hear.

Worse than Spaniards, worse than Englishmen, worse even than poseurs, the ultimate horrors in both Kaputt and Your Face Tomorrow are the narrators themselves: the horror of untouchables, of people on their own. And perhaps this lonely quality is the reason I saw Javier Marías everywhere in Spain, when I travelled that country to see Destroyer play. Solo travel puts the traveller in a mindset that both these artists enjoy, a mindset that’s impossible for anyone to occupy, all the time. It’s also perhaps the reason I felt transgressive at the show when, in my own fatal moment, I caught the singer’s eye. There are some nights—many nights—when visibility feels welcome. But it wasn’t here, not on this night. In the realities suggested by both artists, it’s death to be heard or seen. One shouldn’t ever really tell anyone anything, never, not at all.

Ronnie Scott is a writer for The Australian, The Weekend Australian Magazine, The Monthly, The Believer, the National Gallery of Victoria, ABC Radio National, and many other venues. He founded The Lifted Brow in 2007 and published it until 2012. His book-length essay about food and money, Salad Days, is out this week from Penguin.