Music

Destroyer: Have We Met review – synth-pop adventures in small-hours terror


It’s not intended as snark or faint praise when I describe Destroyer as very much an acquired taste. It’s more a statement of fact. Singer-songwriter Dan Bejar, who more or less is Destroyer, has a hefty cult following, who have accompanied him through the series of baffling stylistic shifts that have constituted Destroyer’s career to date: come for the abstruse lo-fi racket of We’ll Build Them a Golden Bridge, stay for the 13-minute disco workout on Bay of Pigs, or the ambient collaboration with Tim Hecker, Archer on the Beach. They’ve even invented a Destroyer drinking game: take a shot whenever Bejar hits on one of the overarching lyrical themes they insist give coherence and uniformity to his oeuvre. Drink if there’s a reference to fire or other disaster; drink twice for mention of an apocalypse.

Destroyer: Have We Met album art work



Destroyer: Have We Met album art work

The wider world, however, plods on regardless. If the stylistic lurches don’t put people off, there’s always Bejar’s voice – a mannered, etiolated, oddly Anglophone sprechgesang – or his lyrics, which, overarching themes notwithstanding, tend to the mystifying. On Destroyer’s 13th album, Have We Met, you can take your pick from “calling all cars, the palace has a moss problem”, “I was like the laziest river, a vulture predisposed to eating off floors, no, wait, I was more like an ocean” or “the music makes a musical sound, measured in echoes by my famous novelist brothers Shithead 1 and Shithead 2” among its plethora of WTF? moments.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that Bejar prefers to be cult. Whenever something close to mainstream acceptance has come calling, he has pulled back dramatically. Kaputt, his 2011 homage to mid-80s British pop, over which New Order and Prefab Sprout’s shadows loomed large, was shortlisted for the Polaris prize, Canada’s equivalent of the Mercury, while its follow-up Poison Season made the lower reaches of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2017, the darker, denser Ken put paid to that. On paper, this follow-up sounds more off-beam still – a series of offcuts from earlier work, stream-of-consciousness lyrics, taped in Bejar’s kitchen: “no re-recording, no cleaning up”.

The listener thus primed for 40 minutes of hard work may be surprised. As on Kaputt, Have We Met’s main musical touchstone is Britain’s post-postpunk new pop moment, the brief window in the 80s when the desire to make music that was commercial melded with the desire to make music that was inventive and intelligent. As if to signpost where it’s coming from, the album contains a song called Cue Synthesizer. Have We Met is rich with sonic signifiers of that era: sombre washes of synth, slap bass, booming drums, commanding, reverb-laden woah-Vienna piano, guitars that squall or cry mournfully – the entire title track is consumed by a desolate solo – but never rock. Moreover, the set is rich with melodies: only the ambient ramble of The Television Music Supervisor obviously sounds like a product of the album’s working method.

Destroyer: Cue Synthesizer – video

Bejar has talked about being drawn to this brand of 80s music simply because it’s what he remembers hearing on the radio as a kid, but it fits here for reasons beyond nostalgia. However glossy the sound of new pop, it was frequently underscored by anxiety and fear, sometimes explicitly linked to the era’s nuclear paranoia, sometimes not: even the business of getting ready to go out could be transformed into a troubling psychodrama on The Associates’ exquisite Party Fears Two, a song that seems to echo through the plangent keyboard lines that stand in for choruses on Have We Met’s Crimson Tide and It Just Doesn’t Happen.

There’s a similar sense of alarm beneath the album’s shiny surface. In contrast to the image given by the cover – Bejar shot as louche crooner, mic in hand, shirt open to mid-chest – his words rush out in panicky bursts, struggling to cram in all the syllables. Bejar’s stream of consciousness keeps returning to disquieting places. “Just look at the world around you,” opens The Raven. “Actually, no, don’t look.” By the time we reach University Hill, paranoia reigns. Forces unknown are coming “to hack us up”; we’re “staring at oblivion”; “the game is rigged in every direction”. Devotees of the Destroyer drinking game are likely to be paralytic by its close. But, weirdly, it works: for all the inexplicable non-sequiturs, it accurately captures a sense of ineffable small-hours dread, and of nameless fear poking through random thoughts.

On the closing Foolssong, the album’s peculiar, compelling balance between the familiar and the confusing, the straightforwardly appealing and the shudder-inducing, finally seems to topple. Perhaps the melodically sweetest song here, it eventually collapses into creepy ambient noise, as if overwhelmed by the fear. But for all the bleakness of its conclusion, the songs on Have We Met stay with you, testament to the fact that Bejar only really makes two kinds of album – the kind you admire for its bloody-mindedness and the kind you actively enjoy. Have We Met belongs to the latter category. Even at their poppiest, Destroyer remain an acquired taste. This time around, it’s one more than worth acquiring.

This week Alexis listened to

Love Regenerator: Love Regenerator 1
In which Calvin Harris, of all people, mixes full-on early 90s rave with acidic R&S Records techno of a similar vintage to delightful effect.



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