Destroyer's 'Have We Met' Is Dan Bejar's Best Album Since 2011's 'Kaputt'
Dan Bejar seems omnipresent on Destroyer's first album of the 2020s, moving through the arrangements at his own whim.
Have We Met
31 January 2020
The actual music on Have We Met isn't particularly remarkable. What holds it all together is Dan Bejar, slowly drifting above the songs as if over a sea of fog, carrying on what we can only call an interior monologue lest we accuse him of a lack of social decorum. He seems omnipresent. A filter that occasionally shrouds his voice is a new and wonderful trick; he seems to move through the mix at his whim, sometimes coming from over here, sometimes from over there. It also imparts a wonderful sense of authority. Such vocal distortion is usually associated with microphones and megaphones—instruments used by people in charge. And for the record's 40 minutes and change, we can't take our ears off him. While describing a planned album he was working on with the late singer-songwriter David Berman, Bejar imagined casting him as a "Serge Gainsbourg-style voice of God". One imagines he saved some of the ideas from those sessions for himself.
This is Bejar's best album since his best album, 2011's Kaputt. Though they don't sound much alike, Have We Met immediately scans as a spiritual successor. It's no coincidence that Kaputt producer and Bejar's fellow New Pornographer John Collins returns after a two-album absence. While 2015's misanthropic Poison Season framed Bejar more as a singer-songwriter and 2017's short, undercooked Ken stripped down his lyrics to terse phrases, both Kaputt and Have We Met give Bejar free rein to drool all over the music with his torrent of verbiage. It helps that on both albums, the tempos are faster and the rhythms are more repetitive than usual. He seems to move at a different pace from the music, perhaps uncaring, perhaps just existing in a universe where things flow a little differently. On "Crimson Tide" and "It Just Doesn't Happen", the beat races along at the relentless pace of the world itself as Bejar gets his mind hooked on patterns: "This doesn't just happen to anyone… this just doesn't happen to anyone…"
One can approach a Destroyer song assuming that it means nothing. One can also approach it as a code to be cracked, a series of metaphors adding up to a single meaning. The reality lies somewhere in between: a Destroyer song is about what your gut tells you it's about, and not every lyric necessarily has to corroborate that interpretation. "Crimson Tide" seems to be a codeword for a blustering jock, coming as it does after a descriptor of a man who's "on the lookout for anything that moves" and again after describing one who's 25 and has "never felt so alive". But another reader can tell me what "a circus mongrel sniffing for clues" means. And maybe "on the lookout for anything that moves" doesn't mean lust but a prey instinct. Either way, a Destroyer song is at least as impressive when we're confused by it, because then, it reads like hieroglyphics.
Each of Bejar's albums might sound a little different, might be a little better or worse or longer or shorter or more produced or more stripped-down than another, but the novel his ruminating brain continues to spit out is like a river that flows through all of them. He has his obsessions and affectations, some sublime (every time he swears, it feels like an event) and some annoying. For example, his disdain for the music industry, his tendency to associate women with images of Hollywood phoniness like runways and catwalks, and then sneer at both). And then there's his voice, which makes all of it convincing: Bejar's curious almost-British accent, the effete breathiness of his delivery, and how it curdles into a hiss when he wants a lyric to really land ("the Grand Ole Opry of death is breathless", from "The Raven").
The one area in which Have We Met falls short is the music. While it has its moments, like when the end of "The Television Music Supervisor" disintegrates into an excellent approximation of the ambient producer Vladislav Delay, most of it is two- or three-chord, unimaginatively arranged indie-rock with chintzy fake pianos and tasteful guitar. But in a way, the fact that the music here is not particularly interesting is part of what makes it so impressive, because the only thing it has to elevate it is its pure Destroyer-ness. Have We Met is an album to recommend to those who want the meat and potatoes of what the project is about; it could've been self-titled. If you could hang a handy tag on it, like you could with the "'80s album" Kaputt or the "MIDI album" Your Blues, it would feel like the next step for the Destroyer project, rather than the beating heart of it.