Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Destroyer Have We Met

Over the years, the malleability of Destroyer has become one of the project’s most consistent and rewarding qualities. There are throughlines, of course, most importantly Dan Bejar’s sardonic yet oddly poignant presence. He is always there, laconic as ever, scattering half-broken melodies at will over music that, from album to album, offers slight modulations and surprising left turns while always somehow being distinctly Destroyer. His latest collection Have We Met arrives tomorrow — almost exactly nine years after the game-changing Kaputt and just slightly belatedly capping off a rich, dynamic decade of work.

Though Destroyer stretches back to the ’90s, and Bejar garnered plenty of acclaim for his own albums and those he made with the New Pornographers through the ’00s, the early 2011 arrival of Kaputt signaled a turning point. He had his acolytes, but with Kaputt he became indie royalty — albeit still something of an outcast prince, the eccentric distant relative living off on his own island. Even so, Kaputt brought a much greater level of praise and attention to Destroyer, which in turn colored a decade in which Bejar made some of his most adventurous, and simultaneously most accessible, work. Following Kaputt, there were the loose late-night poetics and smoke tendrils of Poison Season in 2015, then the muscular synth-pop of 2017’s Ken, perhaps an even more direct Destroyer outing than Kaputt.

Have We Met feels like something of a culmination of the arc sketched by these recent Destroyer albums. It’s a collection that synthesizes the moods and aesthetics of its immediate predecessors while still feeling, once more, like a different sound for Destroyer. It underlines a decade in which Destroyer existed as a far more commercial prospect than before, and yet Bejar continued following a path that zigged and zagged around whatever else was going on in the indie world at the moment. It finds a middle-aged Bejar recognizable, yet perhaps even more weighed down by the world falling apart outside.

Each Destroyer album has its own discrete style, partially thanks to Bejar implementing restrictions on the recording process or permitted structures of the songs. Have We Met continues that trend, but it was also made with an approach that departed from recent Destroyer albums. Eschewing any band involvement, Bejar recorded demos by himself, hunched over his kitchen table singing quietly to avoid waking his daughter. He sent some rough MIDI files to John Collins — his longtime collaborator, a member of New Pornos, and the second major creative force behind Have We Met — who then fleshed them out. The result leaves Bejar’s whispery scratch vocals intact, rawer and more searching than he’s been in years, while yielding some arrangements that — if recent interviews are anything to go by — surprised Bejar himself.

His only aim was to make “computer music” with Collins, and he gave his partner fairly free rein from there. Initial press releases described Have We Met’s particular electronic backdrop as being Y2K-inspired, a concept that Bejar has amusingly refuted or expressed confusion about when it’s come up this press cycle. “I liked it because it sounded ridiculous,” he explained in our recent interview. “It wasn’t a sound that really conjured up anything to anyone.”

In a separate interview with Rolling Stone, he specified that he was really drawn to a peculiar era and idea, rewatching movies from the early ’90s that were imagining the near future of the late ’90s, which are now the almost-distant past. It’s an abstract concept to jump off from, but one that allowed Have We Met to achieve a synth-driven sound that was nevertheless more un-stuck from time than, for example, Ken’s new wave affectations might’ve been. “[Collins] just let his imagination run wild, and that’s why I don’t think the record is very era-specific,” Bejar told us. “It doesn’t immediately conjure up the ’80s or the ’90s or the 2000s or the 2010s.”

In some ways, Have We Met relying on synthesizers and programmed beats makes it a logical successor to Ken — even though Kaputt delved into a synthetic soft-rock anchored by wan disco beats, it was Ken that marked Destroyer’s full, unabashed foray into synth music. Have We Met, both in sound and whatever remains of its Y2K and computer-music prompt, continues that thread but stretches it back out — not quite to the smooth, cloudy ambience of Kaputt, and not quite to the diffuse Poison Season. There’s a bleary drift to this material, a quality that makes it feel both like a world-weary rejoinder to Ken’s gloss and an epilogue to an overall poppier Destroyer decade, but also that could allow you to scramble the chronology of this set of Destroyer albums.

Bejar’s assertion that Have We Met doesn’t conjure any one era is spot-on. It’s also spot-on about the three albums that came before. Starting with Kaputt, there’s a story to these albums, but in true Destroyer fashion, it’s disjointed. In a recent conversation with a friend, we each had alternate notions of how these albums could’ve been more sensibly ordered. You could see Ken immediately following Kaputt and then leading to Have We Met as Destroyer fully ventured out to sea for Poison Season; you could see Poison Season emerging from Destroyer’s ’00s songwriting, then an abrupt lane change with Ken leading to the pairing of Have We Met and Kaputt. The point is that Have We Met feels like a middle ground within Destroyer’s recent work, an album with sharpened pop sensibility but also songs that feel as if they’re pulling you along into a foggy horizon.

In early write-ups, you’ll see words like “creepy” and “dread” thrown around a lot, with Bejar himself confirming the album was intended to be darker. And, fair enough, there is a kind of claustrophobic, chilly grayness to the digital soundscapes he and Collins created here. But amidst that, there is also some of the catchiest and prettiest material Destroyer’s ever released.

Any recent Destroyer album has its immediate moments — even the elusive Poison Season boasted the blaring Bowie/Springsteen-indebted earworm “Dream Lover” — but Have We Met features some of the most infectious Destroyer material ever. There is real propulsion in a lot of these songs, something Bejar might credit to Collins’ touch. Apparently “It Just Doesn’t Happen” was more Felt than OMD originally, but now it’s full-blown neon glow. “Cue Synthesizer” has already grabbed fans’ attention with its surprising robotic funk; it’s one of the most danceable grooves Destroyer’s ever utilized, and Bejar seems to still find it baffling.

But those songs make some amount of sense after Ken tracks like “Tinseltown Swimming In Blood” and “La Regle du Jeu.” What’s more striking is the atmospheric tracks elsewhere, songs that can feel lush and strung-out at the same time. “Kinda Dark” is glimmering and glacial, while “University Hill” is a loopy, floaty daydream (despite the feeling that this entire album definitely takes place at night). The pairing of the instrumental, meditative title track and “The Man In Black’s Blues” is one of the best moments on Have We Met — an impressionistic drone and ghostly guitar notes leading into a late-album highlight that’s all gossamer, swooning pop. Then of course there’s opener and lead single “Crimson Tide,” a stunning mini-epic deploying icy piano accents and a perfectly arranged set of rhythms and subtle synth details to achieve a cinematic grandeur.

Within the world of Destroyer, it’s an anthem, but Bejar’s lyrics and vocal delivery still keep songs like “Crimson Tide” from getting carried away. Have We Met is full of characteristically inscrutable Destroyer lyrics, the exact kind of stuff that his detractors dislike and his diehard fans adore (and, either way, the kind of stuff he can certainly pull off when it’d be irritating in someone else’s hands). In “Crimson Tide” alone, he kicks the whole album off by disagreeing with himself: “I was like laziest river/ A vulture predisposed to eating off floors/ No wait, I take that back/ I was more like an ocean.” Who knows what it means, but it’s evocative — Bejar often talks about his stream-of-consciousness approach, and even joked about just tacking on the title “Crimson Tide” to the end of each verse and hoping it would stick together.

Somehow, it does. There are passages that feel like piss-takes — the way he writes the song in real time for “Cue Synthesizer,” or the drawn-out second-guessing qualifiers that open “It Just Doesn’t Happen” (“You’re looking good/ In spite of the light/ And the air/ And the time of the night”). The Destroyer worldview is intact throughout, lines and sentiments that seem sarcastic or disingenuous later feeling heavier as you consider the whole conversation of the album. You’re spending time with a writer’s tangled ideas amidst an aesthetic of low-flying anxiety that successfully reflects the kind of simmering, constant worry we live with day in and day out in the 21st century.

In fact, it’s Bejar’s attitude that salvages the few moments where Have We Met can start to drag. “The Raven” and “foolssong” both take their sweet time emerging from the mist, but you feel compelled enough to stick with Bejar that their eventual refrains feel all the more rewarding. “The Television Music Supervisor” is such an eerie, disembodied haze that it threatens to tank the album’s momentum just four songs in, but then Bejar’s premise — a deathbed lament from a “powerful” person a la Citizen Kane, except it’s a guy who oversaw music syncs for TV shows — is so ridiculous and distinct you just have to buy in. As always, there are characters and scenes and fixations that feel as if they could only come from the mind of Dan Bejar. He has a gift for balancing absurdity and gravity.

It’s hard to rank Destroyer’s albums against each other these days. Though Kaputt casts a long shadow, every Destroyer fan has their own favorite, whether stretching back to the late ’90s and early ’00s or maybe adoring one of his post-Kaputt ’10s releases the most. It feels a little dismissive or reductive to sum up Have We Met as another great Destroyer album that tweaks the formula but comfortably feels a part of this larger canon, but that’s what it is. It might wind up being a favorite for some Destroyer fans, or it might not.

What’s gratifying regardless is the overall transformation Destroyer took on through the 2010s. Bejar had a specific vibe in the ’00s: the weirdo artiste who popped up with the New Pornos, but then followed his own tangents as far as they wandered when returning to Destroyer. That has continued in the decade since, but in recent times, he’s located a strange synthesis. His albums still don’t really feel of any one place or time or genre; he’s still toying with classic songwriting as much as he’s maintaining a long-established voice that disregards normal, basic rules. Yet when you look at these four albums together, you get a glimpse of an artist aging into his powers, knowing how to sew idiosyncrasy and accessibility, erratic muses and songwriting acumen, together.

Have We Met, then, sits perfectly where it is. It builds on what came before; it breaks down what came before. It feels like its own chapter. It gives you a new Destroyer to consider, and another late-night chat with Bejar’s unique point of view. You can sort of get where it came from, but it’s hard to picture where he’ll go next. That feels like the point of a new Destroyer album — and Have We Met executes it beautifully.

Have We Met is out 1/31 on Merge. Pre-order it here.