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A track-by-track guide to the new Destroyer album Have We Met with Dan Bejar

On his 13th solo album, Dan Bejar continues to weave through genres like few others.

January 31, 2020
A track-by-track guide to the new Destroyer album <i>Have We Met</i> with Dan Bejar Photo: Ted Bois  

Dan Bejar landed on the title of the new Destroyer album Have We Met when the project was nearly completed. “It's a nostalgic phrase, in some ways,” the 47-year-old artist tells me over the phone during a rare snowy day in his hometown of Vancouver. “I don't think I've heard a human being utter the words, ‘Have we met?’ I've only just read it in books or seen it in old movies.” It’s a neat summary of what makes Bejar a beguiling and brilliant songwriting force: like a magician performing a sleight of hand, he can draw rapture, remorse, and revival from places seemingly foggy and sneakily universal.

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Adding to the romance of it all is the fact that Bejar isn’t in full control of the font of his own creativity — and doesn’t want to be. “I don't know how to sit down and write,” he says. “Destroyer songs are always really flawed. They're not perfect little dioramas. They have a lot of the guts showing.” Each of the 13 Destroyer albums have been different from the last, distant siblings united by Bejar’s fantastically mordant presence — 2011’s Kaputt, indebted to '80s pop and jazz, was the breakout that introduced the world to Bejar, the bone-dry beat poet, walking musical encyclopedia, and now era-defining indie rock star.

Bejar never embraced the former title and took four years to complete Kaputt’s follow-up, Poison Season, a prestigious-sounding record that glows with epic orchestration aiming for the cheap seats in a pricey theater. Five years and another album (2017’s synthy, stellar ken) later, Have We Met arrives. The album may utilize material Bejar wrote during Kaputt sessions, but it keeps up the tradition of each Destroyer album standing on its own in the catalogue: The Blue Nile’s 1989 album Hats, new age ambient music, and chart-topping electronica-infused pop of the late ‘90s are some of the varied touchstones.

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Bejar wrote the album in collaboration with producer John Collins and guitarist Nick Bragg, sending drafts and ideas remotely over the computer. “We talked early on about making this kind of record that was more into sound design, more filmic.” Bejar says. “Trying to keep the music itself as minimal as possible.” The initial idea carried on to the finished version, along with “cooked, electronic-sounded songs” that Bejar credits to Collins’s appreciation for The Art of Noise and Massive Attack. As always, Bejar is the centerpiece, delivering his lyrics like an addled mystic without lapsing into alienating the listener: “As much as I try and buck against it,” he says, “half of me always ends up writing half of a pop song.”

On the release of Have We Met, here’s Bejar’s rundown on each of the album’s ten-songs, their composition, and how they fit inside the Destroyer project as a whole.

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1. "Crimson Tide"

The FADER: If someone asked me to choose five lines from any Destroyer song that capture your lyrical essence, I’d choose the opening lines of this one. They're funny, they paint pictures, they're dreamlike.

I liked it for that reason. There always needs to be two or three songs that are doing something that I've never done before, and this record has those songs — this song is not one of those. One of my main beefs with this song was that I sound so comfortable inside this mold. But I really enjoyed singing it because I really liked those lines. It has a lot of the basic tenets of Destroyer, this strange looking-back quality that conflates the natural and institutional worlds. I change my mind mid-sentence: "No, wait, I take that back." Retractions are probably one of my favorite genres of writing, especially if I can stick them in the middle of a verse.

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There’s electronic moments that are similar to a few songs on Kaputt.

For Kaputt, the mandate was to keep it dreamy at all times. Have We Met is more of a feel-bad record. it's more corrosive, and it deals with more distorted and abrasive sounds, even in my singing. I feel like someone who's aged horribly — that's the point. I hope I sound ravaged by age. Kaputt was the beginning of a new singing style that I was still figuring out. When I listen to that record, I feel pretty absent, which is different from the vibe on Have We Met. I think I've finally figured out how to sing that way but still impart some intimacy and urgency.

2. "Kinda Dark"

Each verse describes three scenarios in a very clear-cut way. The first verse is about searching for kicks in the night, sitting down on the park bench, and lo and behold — there's your killer. Nightmare scenes. As a kid, I remember reading or hearing [the phrase “Boston strangler”] all the time. It seemed like ground zero for serial killers, and now it's a weird, far-away expression. I wonder if some people even wonder what the fuck “Boston strangler” really means.

What drove me to write those lines in the first place is always pretty unconscious. A lot of it is the sound of language. I write the words first. There's people who play with the sound of language because they have a complete song and they're filling in the lyrics at the minute; this record — like all Destroyer records, but especially this record — was the complete opposite. When something is lyrics-first, the language has to be musical, but it has to have emotional resonance as well. Or else, you’d find yourself thinking, "What the fuck's the point?"

3. "It Just Doesn't Happen"

To me, this song sounds like a moodier relative of “Crimson Tide.”.

I think it's a catchy ditty. It ended up in full-on OMD territory in a way that I’d not predicted. It is moody, but it's also funny, like when they blow a lot of mist or fake cigarette smoke into a darkly lit scene. Lyrically it plays with the idea of being alone at the bar during last call and being very self-conscious of some romantic idea of what isolation means — especially isolation in a room full of people. That's a big Destroyer trope, but I'm also old enough that I'm poking fun of that a little bit.

4. "The Television Music Supervisor"

This feels like an interlude. Is it a dividing line between the first three songs and the rest of the album?

I knew it was going to be an ambient song from day one. Even the words are ambient, even though they're the most specific. It’s supposed to be someone looking back with the feelings that sometimes accompany someone looking back, especially if it's someone who wields great power over others. If it was in a play, it would've been a king or an emperor, but in this day and age, I thought it would be more apt for it to be the television music supervisor. I have a feeling that no one's going to know what I was talking about if that song still exists in 20 years — just like how, 20 years ago, I didn't know what that meant. It's really specific language, vaguely futuristic and vaguely Victorian at the same time, which I like.

5. "The Raven"

Your last album had moments interpreted as oblique political references, but these lyrics are more direct.

I've always seen Destroyer as political, from City of Daughters onwards. I think I write more simply now, so it comes across easier. 20 years ago, I’d have the world in flames as a backdrop to some strange romance. Now, I’d maybe just gaze at the flames and try and describe them. I don't really write the words from a conscious place. I don't address topics, because I don't know how. I'm a human in the world, and it's natural as you get older to be more confused and menaced by the world.

6. "Cue Synthesizer"

In a press release, you referred to “Cue Synthesizer” as “maybe the most audacious piece of music Destroyer has laid to tape.”

I don't remember fucking saying that! I'm not backtracking, I just don't remember saying the word “audacious.” But I do feel like once John [Collins] went down the rabbithole production-wise, it started turning into something that I found musically terrifying. When I first wrote the song, I saw it like an early-2000s Leonard Cohen song, where the menace is gentle and flatlined. I didn't predict it’d go into a world of industrial funk-pop with dueling cyber-blues guitars — that's not an aesthetic that I've worked in before, and I probably won't return to it. The way he cut up and mixed guitars, and the way that it's bass-driven, remind me of certain things about the late-’80s and early-’90s that would've sent me running in the opposite direction. I was enthralled and just terrified at the same time.

Is the song a comment on the act of songwriting?

The song is two parts. The last verse is where I bust loose and allow myself to sound fed up — I've had it with the world, because the world is sick and we’re all a part of this. I need to insinuate myself in the world's sickness. No one gets off scot-free. And so, what do I do? I guess I make songs. Well, let's try and describe song-making in a way that, for some reason, sounds corrupt or manipulative. That's how I see the first half of the song.

7. "University Hill"

Does the title refer to a real place?

Yeah, the school in the neighborhood where I grew up as a small child. But that song wasn't written from that place. Most of the verses are taken up with language that reads like people are being rounded up and killed. I got to the end of writing that song, and I had the line "Used to be so nice, used to be such a thrill," and I needed something to rhyme with that.

Here's some insider writing shit: What this song is about and its title is me needing the last word of the song to be “hill.” It's not going to be “Blueberry Hill,” because that's taken. I'm like, "Strawberry hill? What's the hill?" I scrolled through a few different hills. What's a hill that I can sing with conviction? It's a weird reference to my life, and that doesn't normally happen. Then I made this pep rally thing at the end: "Come on, University Hill. It's called love." That took over the vibe of the song and lent it emotional weight, even though before that, it's like a love song in a death camp.

8. "Have We Met"

Was it exciting to return to instrumental music for this album?

Something that I'd wanted to do for a while was to get Nick [Bragg] to do something. In the beginning, there was no talk of any electric guitar anywhere. I was being overly conscious of the sound as being too digital, too vacuum-sealed or claustrophobic. I thought if Nick played on it, it’d open it up. When he sends music, it's always really hard to figure out it works with the song at first — then, you can't imagine the song without it.

I definitely didn't want my voice cluttering it up with extra meaning, and I didn't want any lyrics imposed on it. It's like the record emits a bit of a sigh, and to me, that's an ideal place to put a title — especially a title that asks a question, but you don't have the question mark on the end, so it doesn't really ask a question. It anticipates no answer.

9. "The Man In Black's Blues"

This song stands apart from the rest of the record. It has this very zen feeling, an acceptance of letting go.

That's very true. It's a real face-value song about dealing with grief and bonafide loss, and allowing something to live inside you for the rest of your days in a way that's not bad, even though it feels terrible. I haven't explicitly written on the subject of death very much.

In previous interviews, you’ve talked about writing personally versus writing in character. What was the split on this album?

To me, the person singing definitely has more hang-ups about the world being a relentlessly bleak place than I do. That's just naturally where the writing went, and the soundscapes that John dreamt up reflect that. But as far as the split goes, I don't really know. I never know. There's always one or two songs which sound like me rambling in my head, and “The Raven” is maybe that. But I write what I know — that goofball writer rule number one. Everything that I write is true. It seems that I have seen or said, or heard said, or imagined being said.

Nothing about your lyrics seem writerly or contrived in that esoteric literary sense.

Singing really cuts through any contrivances in writing. When the craft shines through too much, the singing sounds dead inside. So after a while, you start to write into that, and now that's the only kind of thing I write, because that's the muscle of the note. You're just wandering around and you walk into this line, or you have this melody in your head, and all of a sudden these words pop into where the melody was. It's not something you can sculpt too much, though people do and they're really good at it.

10. "foolssong"

This is a leftover from Kaputt. It's a waltz-time lullaby I wrote that never worked out.

The formatting of the title is different from the rest of the tracklist. Any particular reason, or did it just look right that way?

It just looked right, but it also blatantly rips off how Paul Celan titled a bunch of his later poems. That song had a working title for a long time that I just couldn't live with. I think it was called It “Ain't Easy Being a Baby.” I can't hack that title.

The nursery rhyme interpolation really stands out.

The song ducks and weaves that way. It has moments that sound right out of a children's rhyme, and then there's a lot of dark language, but in a quiet, lilting format that you could maybe, in part, sing along to.

This album has a lot of grim imagery. Are you personally a pessimist or an optimist, or somewhere in between?

I’m a big picture pessimist, and then but in the small moments of my life, total optimist. I think that's pretty standard. And I'll say that the record is not about the words; in a lot of ways, I think it's a very joyous record. I think there's this dissonance between what I'm saying and how I'm singing it, and the music that surrounds it and what the band brings and what the producer brings. These are all several different dissonances that come up with this one thing. Even if I describe a world that's a sack of shit, you can tell that I really enjoy the description.

A track-by-track guide to the new Destroyer album Have We Met with Dan Bejar