In his 25th year with Destroyer, Canadian romantic softie troubadour Dan Bejar asks: Have We Met? It would appear we have, but not like this. Around the turn of the last decade, Destroyer’s trajectory shifted to a very tastefully sleek, smooth sophisti-pop exterior with 2011’s Kaputt. Bejar and his band somewhat continued to explore this territory further on 2017’s ken, a deceptively simple and grey, but at the same time, typically clever and biting record that took more of an influence from arty synthpop.
On this new effort, Bejar has opted for a solo approach, composing much of the record at his kitchen table, with long-time contributors – producer John Collins contributing a tapestry of layered synths, and guitarist Nic Bragg coming in with some winding, effervescent phrases and solos. In effect, Bejar has used the more atmospheric elements of Kaputt, as well as the more synthetic elements of ken to craft perhaps one of his more refined and inviting works, a nocturnal retrofuturist record with an anxious undertone.
“Crimson Tide” begins the album in that ambient, atmospheric nether, the angelic synth pads floating suspended. Bejar himself appears so effortlessly that he almost comes off as being on autopilot. Opening with a self-reference (“I was like The Laziest River…”), he goes on a steam-of-consciousness journey through what seems like a series of dramatic stills, punctuated by the catchy keyboard hook, Bragg taking it out with a richly textured, soaring guitar solo. While “Crimson Tide” is like the comeback, a sort of reminder, or “another incarnation of the Bejar enigma”, the rest of the album proves to be a decidedly more low-key affair.
Second single “It Just Doesn’t Happen” evokes the feeling of an especially jubilant night out – if, one might be tempted to say, it was one of the last nights we had left. But who’s to argue, on such a lovely night? The chords and the hooky keyboard melody in the chorus especially (almost a little cheesy, and yet, warm and uplifting) come to a buoyant, sweetly melodic resolution, with an almost constant synth tone like a light breeze. It pairs well with the manic yet oddly freeing energy of the refrain: “You throw yourself down on the playground; skip to a halt on the runway; you cast a poisonous look at the sun…”
Others appear more solitary, mysterious – “Kinda Dark” is a darker, mid-tempo strut through a smokey night city. Under the nocturnal, two-chord cadence, the synth textures groan and shift before industrial strength drums open up the final third for another soaring, noisy guitar solo. “Cue Synthesizer” carries on in a similar strutting fashion, a more chaotic instrumental of occasionally stuttering, cowbell-heavy programmed drums and slap bass – with a tangible undertone of anxiety. Bejar cues different instruments as if announcing world-ending disasters one by one, speaking of “death threats scrawled in invisible ink”, and the cynical indifference of “I’ve been to America, I’ve been to Europe, it’s the same shit”.
On “The Raven”, over a clipped, oddly looping sample of an old record (resembling The Caretaker’s work), Bejar again hints at something wrong – “just look at the world around you… actually no, don’t look”. Though one of the more lightly uptempo compositions, there is an air of bittersweetness and regret all the same – as the title suggests, death is everywhere. It comes off as a muted answer to “It Just Doesn’t Happen”, with Bragg’s guitar again playing a leading role, winding through the mournful organ tones. “University Hill” is comparatively even more muted, a slow waltz with dreamy, pretty pink keys belying the despondent tone of its words – “when they come to hack us up”; “you play to win not a goddamn thing; you climb the walls, you’re made of string”, even if they are surrounded by equally pretty lines.
“The Man in Black’s Blues” sits at the even more bitter end of bittersweet, with words seemingly hinting at hope slipping away, over a lightweight, slightly Cocteau Twins-esque instrumental of reverberating emerald guitar strums and sepia-toned ambient synths; somewhat like this album’s counterpart to Kaputt’s “Song for America” – carefree, but with a palpable and bitter darkness.
And then, some pieces are almost purely ambient – “The Television Music Supervisor”, its cinematic, ethereal synths seeming to slow down time itself, as if after some terrible realisation – “I can’t believe what I’ve done…” – formless, with twinkly, starry keys lulling, closing out with something resembling analogue glitches, the rumbling and huffing of a broken old television.
Title song “Have We Met” is a cavernous guitar solo, a breather before the finale that calls back a little to the early Destroyer albums’ experimental interludes. Finally, closer “Foolssong” is something like the last sunset or sunrise – a beatless, and again, bittersweet piece. Though the major 7ths and ambient synths still radiate a sense of warmth, its clipped lyrics suggest that the hope may be gone. As the little synthetic voice from the song’s beginning resurfaces, it hangs for a while, before gradually spinning out of tune into a disturbing monstrosity and ending the album in a sea of grey doom and unhappiness…
On Have We Met, Dan Bejar remains eloquent and emotive, but also impressionistic and tangential as ever. Its glistening, warm, nocturnal synthetic instrumental tone largely belies the quietly despairing tone of Bejar’s words, though even then, it would appear not entirely without hope. Either way, though not one of the more outwardly distinctive Destroyer records, Have We Met continues the Bejar enigma more than sufficiently.