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Soft-Rock Apocalypse

Don't let Dan Bejar's pop textures distract you from his aggressive lyrics

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Canadian singer-songwriter Dan Bejar has interesting ideas about what constitutes aggressive lyrics and what makes for a compelling vocal performance in the studio.

That's probably because everything Bejar touches is interesting, whether it's his contributions to Vancouver indie-pop supergroup The New Pornographers (which includes American alt-country chanteuse and former Tucsonan Neko Case), or his involvement with another Canuck ultra-ensemble, Swan Lake (featuring Wolf Parade's Spencer Krug). Yet it's Bejar's own project, Destroyer, that eclipses these collaborations, especially given the strength of his recent release, Kaputt, a slab of soft-rock revivalism laced with obscure poetry that has earned rave reviews and is already being hailed by some as one of the year's best albums.

Not that Bejar thinks in literary terms. In interviews, he has discussed there being an "an interesting absence" to his singing throughout Kaputt. The absence brings to mind the literary technique of, say, Hemingway's iceberg theory (or the theory of omission). But Bejar insists he didn't hold back in terms of emotion.

"I laid into it completely," he says during a recent phone interview from a friend's apartment in New York. "Just not through volume and diction. Which leaves almost ... nothing. The words demanded this, not me. By the way, what's Hemingway's iceberg theory? I've never heard of this. Is it tied in with minimalism?"

Yes, it is. But forget literary analogies. "Soft rock" is a term that gets thrown around a lot in reviews of Kaputt, an album that at times sounds like Roxy Music's Avalon crossed with the more abstract moments from Toto's Hydra. As an un-ironic Christopher Cross fan and someone deeply impressed by the colossally evocative production of Kaputt, I had to ask Bejar: How does the soft-rock tag sit with him?

"There are elements of soft rock I like, especially those elements where new age music and jazz music intersect in the realms of pop and new-wave production," he admits. "I'm fine with being tagged with anything, because I enjoy being an active member of a genre. When people talk about music, what they really mean is production. Which is why I thought it interesting to make a 'production record.'"

Kaputt boasts a cool, antiseptic, immaculate production that betrays Bejar's love of late-'70s/early-'80s yacht-rock. From the sensual, apocalyptic dance-rock of "Suicide Demo for Kara Walker" to the dueling syrupy saxophone lines of "Chinatown," the album—Bejar's ninth under the Destroyer moniker and fifth for the Merge label—boasts an array of textures that we haven't heard in many years, freshly rearranged and re-imagined in new and borderline nostalgic ways. There's also a definite and palpable lyrical gloom and hunger for oblivion beneath the cotton-candy surface.

"The soft-rock stuff I like is generally more from the early '70s, an incredibly dark time (in the U.S.)—music of the Paul Williams and Leon Russell variety," Bejar reveals. "Music that reminds me of Vietnam and the atrocities committed there."

Although there's nothing explicitly political in Kaputt, songs like "Bay of Pigs (Detail)" wield the kind of lyrics you might typically encounter in, say, a Metallica release. Example: "The world's just bones / The world is black stones dressed up in the rain / With no place to go but home."

Bejar is tired of critics pondering aloud why his song titles and musical moniker are so aggressive while his music is so, well, soft.

"The titles are aggressive, because they are aggressive songs," he says matter-of-factly. "Just listen to the words. They explain all this. To call them anything different would betray the content of the songs."

OK, but then again, "Bay of Pigs (Detail)" also contains the refrain: "Free and easy / Gentle, gentle." That's not exactly belligerent. Still, there are moments throughout the song that are, in fact, quite harrowing, as when Bejar croons a grim description of "a crumbling beauty trapped in a river of ice."

Like the ambient music he composes, Bejar's abstract words conjure a powerful if somewhat hazy mood, which makes each track haunting and difficult to describe in a few sentences. He says that was the intent—that he likes things that are at once beautiful and eerie.

"I've always thought that some combination of those two things would be a thing to strive for. I'm fairly new to mood music—only in the last four years have I gotten into it—but the more I do, the more I think it's the way to go. I used to think atmospheric music was purely for capitalists."

Instead of asking him to explain that remark by clarifying if he's a communist or socialist, which may or may not be an interesting topic of discussion, I ask him what he seeks to accomplish as an artist: to disturb or to delight, or both?

"The artist who disturbs is still delighting the listener, seeing as delight is really the only way we have of knowing whether something is good or not."

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