I have been listening to The War on Drugs’ song ‘Red Eyes’ practically on repeat for the last few weeks, for reasons that I still can’t quite articulate. (I’m hardly alone in my love for this song: at the time of writing, it has been streamed from Spotify nearly eight million times.) The song – and, indeed, the rest of The War on Drugs’ latest album, Lost in the Dream – combines a number of hoary rock music tropes into something visceral and powerful: it’s a deft blend of Born in the U.S.A.-era Springsteen, late Dire Straits guitar tones, and the synths that powered Rod Stewart’s new wave masterpiece ‘Young Turks’, all enveloped in a bleary haze of reverb. Frontman Adam Granduciel’s vocals sound like they’re coming from a far distance, and what lyrics can be made out sound like tired clichés, even if they aren’t quite: ‘Leave it on a lie, you can have it your way’; ‘Surrounded by the night, and you don’t grow old’; ‘You’re running in the dark and I come to my soul’. Every now and then he punctuates his delivery with a ‘woo!’ that’s halfway between the vocal exhortations of classic FM rock and a guttural cry of desperation. The overall impression is powerful: this is the startling sound of exhaustion – both Granduciel’s personal exhaustion and a broader cultural exhaustion – transformed into art that is thrillingly and paradoxically vital.
Maybe the album’s sense of exhaustion transformed is why I returning to it. My current ‘day job’ as a bartender entails physical exhaustion – some nights I don’t get home until 4am, and sleep doesn’t necessarily follow immediately – but beyond that I’m exhausted by the rehashes, the rereleases, the endless recurrences of the present cultural moment. We’ve recently seen reissues of both The Smashing Pumpkins’ Adore and Oasis’s (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, two fine albums that require no reissuing as their original forms remain readily available. Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke has released a new ‘surprise’ album, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, and despite the rhetoric about its supposedly innovative distribution method – a monetised form of the long-existing peer-to-peer software BitTorrent – the collective response to both the album and its means of distribution has been rather muted. (Perhaps Beyoncé’s self-titled album of last year was the acme of the ‘surprise’ album trend, and its success has rendered the once-novel approach banal.) U2’s force-gifted Songs of Innocence proved so unwelcome that Apple quietly released a tool to allow irate customers to permanently remove it from their iTunes accounts. Even Aphex Twin’s excellent new album Syro is not a reinvention of Richard D. James’s production style, but rather a return to album-making from one of electronic music’s true outliers. As welcome as Syro is, there’s something faintly depressing about a cultural situation where even members of the avant-garde feel a need to re-tread old ground.
This sense of eternal recurrence extends even to the realm of musical controversies. The latest of these to grip the Australian music scene – regarding the silent gifting of a $250,000 grant directly from federal Arts Minister George Brandis to the Australian classical music label Melba Recordings – is in itself a repeat of an earlier controversy over $7 million worth of government funding, and Melba’s ability to seemingly avoid the scrutiny of Australia Council peer review. Even the protagonists are the same: journalist Ben Eltham broke both stories, and Melba CEO Maria Vandamme can’t help but let a tone of irritation and exhaustion creep into her open letter about the matter, titled ‘Enough is enough!’
It’s perhaps inevitable, then, that in this time of cultural stagnation I keep returning to music that makes exhaustion its subject: The War on Drugs’ Lost in the Dream and Destroyer’s magnificently ruined 2008 album Trouble in Dreams, whose opening couplets – ‘Okay, fine / even the sky looks like wine’ – set the album’s louche, disarrayed tone. Destroyer’s entire body of work gives off a sense of profound decadence, the exhaustion borne of having heard too much music, of feeling that you have nothing to say except the repetition of an endless series of references. This internal logic perhaps reached its zenith at the end of last year, when Bejar released an EP of Spanish-language cover songs, claiming that when he recorded it, ‘The English language seemed spent, despicable, not easily singable. It felt over for English; good for business transactions, but that’s about it.’
Trouble in Dreams is something of a transitional album in Destroyer’s oeuvre; it falls somewhere between the jagged bar blues of Destroyer’s Rubies (2006) and the gauche soft disco and new wave of Kaputt (2011). It was received warmly, but with some bafflement, from music critics, who correctly identified that it was perhaps a little aimless compared to his previous work. But it is the album of Bejar’s that I love most precisely because of its imperfection: the slight haze of confusion that surrounds its tunes, the way the production is torn between the sharp/jangly and the smooth/smeared. It is also, not coincidentally, perfect music to accompany a late night shift at a bar: a boozy, woozy album that suggests sleep is nearby, but not quite yet – not before our labours are done, and not before one last drink.