Owen reviews the latest offering from alt-music chameleon Dan Bejar, aka Destroyer.
Over the past 25 years, Dan Bejar has presented with one of the strangest correlations in his musical trajectory of any singer-songwriter of his generation. On the one hand, his music’s sound has incrementally been getting more direct and conventional, culminating in the languid but watertight sophisti-soft-rock-pop of 2011’s Kaputt, which paid as much homage to new age electronic pioneers like Tangerine Dream as it did to the cream of 80’s cheese a-la Spandau Ballet.
Adjacent to this linear progression however, another trend has become apparent. Bejar’s songs themselves have become increasingly abstract and thematically nuanced as his once painstakingly pruned verbosity has been allowed to run rampant for so long; at this point, Bejar no longer feels it necessary to use 1000 words to tell a story. He’s become so fluent in his singular emotional dialect, now he can communicate something twice as intricate and sublime with half the endeavour. New album Have We Met is, in essence, the convergence point of these two trends; Bejar here sounds equally confident crafting well-mannered, mature pop songs littered with twinkling hooks and pop clichés as he does writing incomprehensible, thematically rich lyrics and populating his songs with dozens of peculiar moving pieces whose construction seems absurd. Bejar is able to wield both these strengths with near identical finesse, often within the same song.
Bejar has been fashioning himself into a modern perversion of the lounge singer for some years now and he seems more comfortable within the confines of his persona than ever, allowing the music to grow more adventurous and idiosyncratic. In this context, however, those words are somewhat out of sync with my actual meaning. Bejar’s forays into the pop song (in particular his insistence on inhabiting pop’s least respected nooks and crannies) have been adventurous within the confines of his own artistic progression, but for any other musician they likely would’ve presented a ‘death of the artisté’ type scenario.
'He’s become so fluent in his singular emotional dialect, now he can communicate something twice as intricate and sublime with half the endeavour'.
Why else would a contemporary singer songwriter choose to mine the winding forgotten caverns of 70’s soft rock, 80’s John Hughes and fucking disco? Except to absolutely forgo any semblance of artistry and passion for either the iced metallic sheen of commercialism or the kind of stomach-churning irony that has acted as a laxative for some of the most god-awful drivel to come out of independent music in the 2010s. When Bejar utilises the genre hallmarks and connoted sounds from these styles, however, they’re simply a means to an end, a streamlined and easily digestible aesthetic within which he can construct his endlessly winding, verbose worlds.
Opener Crimson Tide is an epic in the traditional Destroyer sense. At just 6 minutes and change, proceedings might seem unusually trim, but the same can be said of the rest of the record at large with the majority of tracks clocking in at under 4 minutes. This is Bejar working to pack as much melody and melodrama into these relatively straightforward pop songs as he can, before they pop into formless smudges of disparate genre elements and posturing would-be hooks (for the most part). Crimson Tide is thankfully an excellent introduction to this album’s reimagined Destroyer, featuring a dizzying stream of consciousness diatribe from Bejar that leaps between the bitingly comedic and the bitterly horrifying, conjuring images of ‘chicken-shit singers’; ‘an ocean trapped inside hospital corridors’; and most tellingly, ‘Satan again and again’. This is set against swirling new wave synths, click-y beats and a charmingly dated bassline.
Elsewhere on the album, strong tracks such as the ear-worm pressure cooker It Just Doesn’t Happen and the achingly beautiful Kaputt-adjacent The Raven are able to foreground Bejar’s greatest strengths: his peculiar word choices; his bottomless, bone dry wit; and his dexterous and methodological approach to songwriting – a new and exciting way, free from the pretention and ambiguity that could (only very occasionally) eclipse these elements from his previous work.
'[They] foreground Bejar’s greatest strengths: his peculiar word choices; his bottomless, bone dry wit; and his dexterous and methodological approach to songwriting'.
While an interesting phase in Destroyer’s artistic trajectory, the album does feel somewhat indecisive, perhaps owing to Bejar’s newfound laissez-fair attitude to production and sound pallet, laying most of the responsibility solely on John Collins. Sole prerequisite ‘Make it sound cool’ has definitely been met on a song-by-song basis, but the resulting full album experience is sometimes disappointingly sleek and sterile, while the entirely digital recording borders on janky at points. As much fun as it might be hear a forefronted slap bassline on a Destroyer song, it’s indicative of an album that’s occasionally so deliberately idiosyncratic and codified it comes off a bit too Patrick Bateman for its own good. That’s just the curse of the transitionary album though, isn’t it? And what a transitionary album it is, all things considered.
Benefiting from the strong crop of songs at its core and a playful methodology, it’s a substantial improvement on 2017’s dour and listless Ken and a solid Destroyer record in its own right. While it never quite captures the unique literary magic of Kaputt and Bejar’s finest recorded work, it’s an honourable addition to one of indie’s most cerebral and rewarding discographies.