By Adam Krasnoff.
Vancouver-based singer-songwriter Dan Bejar, one of Canadian indie rock’s most loquacious and insular figures, stepped out onto the stage at the Sinclair on March 6th wearing a wrinkled, ecru poplin shirt with the top three buttons undone, his little forest of greying chest hair visible in the glow of the stage-lights, a pair of twice-cuffed thin-wale corduroys, and leather moccasins. Bejar looks precisely himself—a world-wearied indie-rocker turned reluctant pop star who looks as ready to lecture you about the beer he’s drinking (Tecate tonight, in a tall can at his feet beside the mic stand, as well as a plastic cup of seltzer and lime) as he is to perform a set of songs from his new record Have We Met. His nest of curls balloons around his head, and his brows furrow as he stares out at his audience with what could be interpreted as determination, contempt, begrudging respect, or perhaps all three.
Releasing music first as part of the New Pornographers, Bejar started to turn heads in the early 2000s both for his output with that group and for his work as Destroyer. What began as a side project for Bejar grew in ambition and scope; today, it’s what he’s most recognized for. From his earliest works, the singer-songwriter set his work apart from the rest of the indie scene with atypical, angular melodies, obtuse, surreal, and cynical lyricism, and ambitious song structures. Destroyer’s highly literate, mazy, guitar-heavy brand of indie rock reached an ambitious, tortuous peak on 2002’s This Night, while the previous year’s Streethawk: A Seduction showed Bejar at his most pop-savvy and theatrical, owing as much to Ziggy-era Bowie as it did any document of 90s slacker rock. He went on to explore MIDI-style electronics on 2004’s Your Blues, and flirted with rock opera on 2006’s Destroyer’s Rubies. As the years passed, Bejar became more and more interested in pop sensibility, culminating with 2011’s Kaputt, which many consider his masterpiece. Kaputt’s sophisticated, intricately produced brand of lounge-pop à la Steely Dan and Avalon-period Roxy Music shows Bejar simultaneously at his most accessible, pretentious, and precise, crafting canny pop songs which abound in both musical and lyrical references to the past. Since that album’s release, Bejar has continued to make bohemian pop music for people who like to tap their feet with a wry, knowing smile.
Which brings us to Have We Met, released earlier this year. The record continues Bejar’s interest in the various stylings of 80s pop music, including synth-heavy New Wave and sax-laden adult contemporary. Bejar has for the Have We Met tour enlisted earnest indie-rockers Nap Eyes, but for Destroyer’s Boston show the opening bill was changed last-minute to feature Elastic Stars, accommodating for Nap Eyes not being able to make the date. Elastic Stars, usually a full band but that night pared down to just the poncho-wearing front man playing kick drum and acoustic guitar with heavy reverb. The opening set was charming in its preciousness, as the singer’s whining delivery reached screeching highs and theatrically low bellows during such tracks as “Muzik,” “Lovemaking,” and “Cigarettes in the Rain.” One thinks Nap Eyes will be a welcome reintroduction on the future tour dates.
Bejar opened his set with a rousing performance of Have We Met’s stuttering opening cut “Crimson Tide.” The band included two guitarists (one alternately on synth duty depending on the track), a trumpeter, bassist, and keyboardist, and Bejar nasally wailing away above all the layers of instrumentation. Save for a performance of Destroyer’s Rubies’ “European Oils” (and during the encore, of “Rubies”) the set consisted of only performances of tracks from the last four Destroyer records, and focusing in particular on the new record (“Kinda Dark,” “The Raven,” “Cover From the Sun,” “It Just Doesn’t Happen,” “Cue Synthesizer,” “University Hill,” and “Foolssong”) and Kaputt (“Kaputt,” “Chinatown,” “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker,” and “Poor in Love”). The songs from the new record vary in their fluidity, but Bejar’s cynical, hopeless lyrics provide a through-line between them. He has always sung about love, loneliness and death, but his poetry seems nowadays to carry a particularly dark air. “Did you realize it was hollow? / Like everything that’s come before, you’re gone / The idiot’s dissonant roar,” Bejar moans on “Cue Synthesizer.” “We are a room of pit ponies / Drowning forever in a sea of love.” It therefore seems fitting when, in the midst of the performance, Bejar chooses to perform the apocalyptic “Ecstasy” from Lou Reed’s album of the same name. Reed is an obvious forefather for Bejar, and the Velvet Underground front man’s darkly comic, druggy poetry would seem at home in any number of Destroyer tracks. This rendition is the sparest of the set, featuring only ominous bass, nervous drumming, and Bejar’s final cries. Despite the track’s themes, the effect was utterly sobering.
The tracks from Kaputt sound just as gorgeous and effortlessly cool in the live setting as they did at the time of the album’s release. The record’s title track feels like the theme song to Bejar’s late-career transition into fluid pop, distilling all the new elements of his songwriting into a breathtaking six minutes and change. “Wasting your days / Chasing some girls, alright chasing cocaine / Through the backrooms of the world…All sounds like a dream to me,” the Canadian croons over sultry horns and leisurely bass, sounding as self-assuredly cool as he does dejected. Kaputt’s combination of cosmopolitan cool and postmodern generational malaise still rings true today, and perhaps has only become more poignant as Bejar has aged. When he cries, “Why does everybody sing along / When we built this city on ruins?” during the bridge of “Poor in Love,” the question seems directed right at the audience.
There is an obvious separation from the singer and his audience. After most tracks, Bejar takes a bow, as if he is a fidgety stage actor. He only speaks to introduce the titles of songs and to thank the audience thereafter. Even when his band reenter the stage for an encore, he seems nonplussed by the applause.
Bejar and his band saved their most electrifying performance for the last of the set, as they took the already lengthy “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker” and stretched it out to fifteen overwhelming minutes. The extended flute intro on the studio version of the cut was replaced by a six-minute distorted trumpet passage, the instrument mimicking the song of a dissonant foghorn. The song, a passionate complaint against modern conceptions of love and sex, reaches for a deep groove as Bejar snarls “New York City just wants to see you naked / And they will.” The crowd swayed nervously in response, finally breaking into more passionate dance as the song reaches its overpowering crescendo. Fittingly, Bejar doesn’t look too bothered about any of it. For years, he has reached for understanding through his dense, wordy poetry, but he doesn’t see anything wrong with a bit of noisy catharsis, either. As his band reaches their highest gear, Bejar just sits down on the stage, stroking his beard. His fixed gaze seems to linger long after he leaves the stage.