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Destroyer Remain Familiar Yet Ambitious on Have We Met

on January 30, 2020, 10:30am

The Lowdown: Dan Bejar has a good relationship with his unconscious. He’s something of a surrealist, and he’s at least as interested in the sounds of words as their literal meanings. On Destroyer’s twelfth studio album, Have We Met, this inclination is as apparent as ever from the outset. Before trying to piece together perceived allegories out of the many abstract lines on the opening track, “Crimson Tide”, keep in mind that the song is itself a collage. As he said in an interview with Stereogum, Bejar cobbled together these lines from scattered notebooks, peppering them with the refrain of “crimson tide” in order to formally string them together.

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Bejar obviously enjoys the ambiguity his lyrics have earned, but as any stream-of-consciousness writer would tell you, the unconscious has an organizing power of its own. Thematic strands emerge on every Destroyer album, and Have We Met is no exception. Have We Met explores similar sonic territory to 2011’s Kaputt and 2017’s ken, but it uses a different palette. Bejar composed Have We Met on GarageBand before sending the songs to his collaborator, John Collins. Lyrically, the record treads familiar territory, painting another weirdly affirming portrait of spiritual and cultural desolation. There are moments on this album that feel positively apocalyptic. The lyrics of the album’s stirring, economical centerpiece, “The Raven”, set the emotional tenor of the record: “Just look at the world around you/ Actually no, don’t look,” “I hope you’ve enjoyed your stay/ Here in the city of the dying embers,” and the truly classic Bejar line, “The Grand Ole Opry of death is breathless.”

The Good: Have We Met balances Bejar’s free-associative leanings, which, as always, lead to many striking, witty lyrical moments, with thematic strands that remain consistent throughout the record. ken was sonically immaculate and had many thrilling moments — “Tinseltown Swimming in Blood” is an all-time great Destroyer track — but for many it lacked the focus and conceptual weight of the similarly inclined Kaputt. Have We Met is as musically varied and engaging as Destroyer’s music has ever been, and Bejar challenges himself to approach new sonic textures: the synth refrain on “It Just Doesn’t Happen” leans into pop territory, sounding like something off Sonic: The Hedgehog on the Sega Genesis (not a bad thing), and the funk groove on “Cue Synthesizer” sounds like nothing Bejar’s done before.

At the same time, the stakes feel higher on this record than they did on the last as Bejar burrows into recurring themes with an obsessiveness that suggests that they’re keeping him up at night. Strange and familiar Bejar-esque figures grace the theater stage (If this is theater, it’s in the absurd, existential spirit of Samuel Beckett), but most importantly, there’s Dan Bejar’s ever-present lyric voice, singing about how “the idea of the world is no good,” about how “nothing /Is more beautiful than anything you ever knew.” The droning, titular instrumental track, with its wandering electric guitar, is perfectly placed, vivifying the world that has been created over the course of the album: a murky dystopia that feels a little too familiar. By the time the album’s closer, “foolssong”, comes along, these dreamlike sequences have evolved into a no-less-dreamlike reality. The track’s false ending, followed by a chorus of clashing voices, like the buzzing of so many insects, calls to mind Radiohead’s Kid A, both the fake-out ending of “Motion Picture Soundtrack” and the cacophonous brass section on “The National Anthem” — every instrument, or voice, is playing its own melody without any collaboration, together creating spectacular dissonance.

The Bad: The economy on this record is a double-edged sword. There is no “Bay of Pigs (Detail)” here, whose length and compositional ambition lent extra weight to Kaputt’s themes, and Bejar is often at his best when he gives himself the space to paint with broad strokes. Additionally, the record lacks a sonic revolution on par with the movement from Kaputt to 2015’s Poison Season. Although Bejar changed his approach in writing for Have We Met, the record nevertheless continues, for the most part, in the vein of the sophisti-pop melodies and arrangements of Kaputt and ken. However, as I’ve mentioned before, certain moments mark definitive steps forward musically.

The Verdict: More than 20 years in, Destroyer keep challenging themselves to make vital music, and Dan Bejar remains one of the most unique songwriters and vocalists out there. Have We Met, though perhaps less ambitious than Destroyer’s best work, is nevertheless their freshest and most enjoyable record in years. To maintain this kind of output — and, more impressive, this kind of urgency — after so long is something achieved by very few bands. Dan, keep following your intuition.

Essential Tracks: “It Just Doesn’t Happen”, “The Raven”, and “Cue Synthesizer”

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