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Kitchen Sink Dramatist: Have We Met By Destroyer
Zara Hedderman , January 30th, 2020 09:25

On his new album, Have We Met, Destroyer's Dan Bejar reveals himself as not just a fine songwriter, but one of the age's great musical dramatists, finds Zara Hedderman

After twenty-five years and thirteen albums, it finally feels like we’re becoming acquainted with Dan Bejar outside of the Destroyer guise. This is a man with a flare for abstract story-telling. An artist residing on the fringes of mainstream-exposure and he’s happy with his position in the world. Who can blame him, really? Especially if we’re to go by his depiction of the world on his latest release, Have We Met.

This newfound familiarity is founded on the album’s inception. During the night, while his wife and daughter slept in their Vancouver home, Destroyer’s Dan Bejar recorded hushed vocals into a mic connected to his laptop at his kitchen table. Delivered in an uncharacteristically subdued tone, with the efficiency and purpose of scribbling ideas on scraps of paper, Bejar revisited lines initially penned as far back as 2011, during the making of Kaputt. These demos were sent to long-term Destroyer collaborator and producer John Collins, giving him a sense of the melody in Bejar’s mind. The intimacy and stream-of-conscious ebb and flow in both Bejar’s timbre and train of thought in those moments were never re-recorded as production on the record progressed. What we hear from him on Have We Met is the truest form of expression from the Canadian singer-songwriter. The audience, in that regard, is granted a similar existence to how he navigated the record in that we’re permitted to roam freely throughout these ten songs.

First impressions of this world presents a dismal place populated by equally morose dwellers. For a visual representation, you needn’t venture further than the video for most recent single, ‘Cue Synthesizer’, where silent streets are interrupted by hooded figures indulging in an impressive display of interpretive dance inspired by the song’s scuzzy bass-lines and drum samples straight from the 1990s. The 90s sonic callback is, in part, a continuation of the combined lounge-jazz and synth-pop sensibilities explored on previous releases Ken and Kaputt heightened by the recent five-hour cut of Wim Wenders’ sci-fi thriller Until The End of the World, a film made in 1991 that tried to predict how music would sound in 1999. Here, Bejar and Collins thrive on melodies that hark back to specific moments and artists of the 90s, such as the sophistication of Sade.

A desolate narrative woven throughout Bejar’s imagery often creates claustrophobic songs which, from the offset, are not for the faint-hearted. Bejar, our conduit in this realm, see-saws in his invitation to listeners to observe this place: “Just look at the world around, actually, no don’t look,” he intones on ‘The Raven’. This stark lament is continued when Bejar further implies that “the idea of the world is no good”. Despite this cautionary exclamation, it’s impossible to divert your attention away from the many atrocities that make-up Destroyer’s most dynamic record. Here, your chances of encountering the Boston Strangler are as good as coming across a gaggle of “chicken-shit singers paying their dues” or “another dead rich runaway.” It becomes alarmingly clear that, amidst infectious instrumentation bolstered by brilliantly pastiche synth-pop and sparsely composed menacing melodies, Bejar’s musings have brought us to a place where the living and the dead co-exist: “The dead twist and shout in an invisible world.” Naturally, this gives imagination as much importance as reality in the construction of the songs. It’s as though we’ve entered a fictional small town shrouded in darkness à la David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.

Even in the pared-back moments, there’s drama. Take the three-minute instrumental, ‘Have We Met’, a borderline new-age meditation given an edge with a sharp guitar to disrupt any semblance of calm. Consider it possessing a similar duality to Laura Palmer of the aforementioned Twin Peaks. It’s strange then, to picture the characters portrayed by Molly Ringwald and Andrew McCarthy in John Hughes’ Pretty In Pink treading the same terrain as Palmer as the listener cannot help but immediately think of the music featured in brat-pack films as soon as the bright synths of ‘It Just Doesn't Happen’ take off. However, the drama that unfolds across this record is far more substantial, bearing more consequence than the pitfalls of puppy love.

Thematically, where the worlds of theatre and film have previously been explored across Destroyer’s discography, it intensifies on this record, at one point manifesting in Bejar delivering stage directions on ‘Cue Synthesizer’ (“Cue synthesizer, cue guitar, bring in the drums, cue fake drum”). While there’s a wonderful stylistic variety across the arrangements, Collins has woven an eerie air throughout each song, adding a cinematic quality to the instrumentation. As always, Bejar’s excess of rich language manages to remain on the right side of portension via his irresistible comic timing. He spits out savage quips like “Been to America, been to Europe, it’s the same shit,” with an irrefutable air. This aspect of his artistry has resulted in many entertaining explorations, nay mockery, of various cultural subdivisions; publication houses (see 2001 LP, Streethawk: A Seduction), crummy musicians (“I heard your record, it’s alright”), and a recent spotlight on the stage (“Give up acting? Fuck no! I’m just starting to get the good parts”).

The album’s title, especially within the context of Bejar’s songwriting style, is particularly apt. From 1996’s We’ll Build Them A Golden Bridge through to Ken, arriving two decades later, Destroyer fans are accustomed to meeting characters by name (‘Melaine and Jennifer and Melaine’, ‘Helena’,) or their circumstances in a professional capacity. We get this with ‘The Television Music Supervisor’, the gorgeously ethereal centrepiece which immediately distinguishes itself as one of Destroyer’s finest compositions.

Punctuated with tremors and glitches, interfering with an otherwise serene synth which dances like dust particles caught in the glow of light, the arrangement floats atop textures that, in certain moments, heralds a fleeting fragility heard sparingly from Aphex Twin or Radiohead. The protagonist is an ailing figure, stagnant on his death-bed, ruminating on past regrets from his life and career: “The Television Music Supervisor says, I can’t believe what I’ve done, what I’ve said,” sings Bejar. In a recent interview, the singer cited the scene of important figures assessing their life achievements and shortcomings, spurred by death’s call as one of his favourite genres; “In this instance, it’s a TV music supervisor … as the person who wields the ultimate power in our society,” Bejar posits. “Which is absurd, but kind of a tiny bit true as far as culture and taste-making goes.” If we’re to consider how easily bound people become nowadays to boxsets and reality TV, it’s difficult to disregard Bejar’s stance. The source of this particular individual’s regret is left open to interpretation. Is it founded on an ineptitude towards a fundamental aspect of his career (“Clickety click click, the music makes a musical sound measured in echoes”) or perhaps there was a long-standing rift between the “famous novelist brother shithead number one and shithead number two”.

Elsewhere, ‘Kinda Dark’, comes with sincere vocals layered atop a cacophony of power guitar riffs played by Nicolas Bragg and extended synth notes lingering airily overhead like an impenetrable mist. The arrangement, steered by this hazed synth, instantly conjures a spooky visual of an ostentatious estate straight from a Shirley Jackson novel: “The palace has a moss problem, it glows in the dawn,” Bejar sings, developing a nocturnal scene. Once the drum sample kicks in, there’s a shift in mood. Suddenly, an unsettling feeling descends, a worry of things going bump in the night, as with Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House which spawned two film versions in 1963 and 1999 along with a Netflix series. This feeling fails to dissipate with the introduction of spiky guitar notes, squawking as blackbirds do. It’s all at once sultry and unsettling, a track that continuously draws the listener back under its alluring spell.

Across Bejar’s career, as a solo artist and occasional member of The New Pornographers and short-lived supergroup Swan Lake with Wolf Parade’s Spencer Krugg and Carey Mercer of Frog Eyes, his songwriting has always retained an idiosyncratic free-form flow. In recent years, the visceral visual experience from his work, as noted in 2017’s Ken, has become somewhat more concentrated. On this album, we get this from the vivid image of a violent sea of intense red – or blood – alluded to in the title of lead-single ‘Crimson Tide’, or a swarm of looped vocals that close the album, making the listener feel as though they’re under the threat of an army of locusts. In those instances, where the listener hasn’t been spoonfed the details of the setting, it becomes our job, as audience, to follow these cues with our mind’s eye, to fill in the blanks.

In this vein, Have We Met’s overall mood coupled with Bejar’s descriptive use of language immediately transforms these songs into fully realised settings. In these murky and menacing melodies, creating the aural equivalent of a murder-mystery TV mini-series, Bejar's transition from songwriter to musical dramatist is complete. Even after repeated listens, when all the characters and plot-lines have been revealed to us, the element of surprise remains in-tact across this immersive offering.

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