Last Friday, a new Destroyer album, Have We Met, was released. As he has for nearly 25 years, Dan Bejar has managed to make an album that is bleak, hilarious, exceedingly lovely, and more than a little confounding. There are songs on this album that I love (like the whispery synth-rock jam “It Just Doesn’t Happen”) that I’m not even close to comprehending. Give me another 100 listens and I’ll still be befuddled. (The line about “ridiculous paper” — sure, I’m with you, man!)
But you best believe I’m going to play this song 100 times. In the world of modern indie rock, which has long since been gentrified by mainstream pop and the celebrity-thinkpiece complex, an artist like Bejar seems like an anomaly, even an anachronism — an idiosyncratic outsider who feels no need to conform or explain himself. Over the course of his long, frequently unpredictable career, he’s managed to dabble in a variety of styles — lo-fi folk, bar-band rock, highly theatrical chamber pop, hyper-smooth cocktail lounge jams — while maintaining his singular, droll personality.
Because Bejar has covered so much ground, his discography has multiple entry points favored by different parts of his fanbase. Ask 100 Destroyer fans for their favorite song, and you might very well get 100 different answers. (Also, how did you find 100 Destroyer fans in one place? Not even Destroyer concerts always have 100 fans.) However, these 20 songs are most correct choices.
20. “Dream Lover” (2015)
In the popular consciousness — as far as Dan Bejar has minimally entered the popular consciousness — Destroyer is associated with the lush, louche soundscapes of their 2011 commercial breakthrough, Kaputt. But for more than a decade before that, Bejar was best-known for swaggering, post-modern classic-rock pastiches. He was like The Hold Steady if Craig Finn were equally obsessed with Bowie as he is with Springsteen. On Destroyer’s first post-Kaputt album, Poison Season, Bejar returned to that sound on this bombastic rocker, a lovers-on-the-run anthem that reimagines “Born To Run” for a world in which “Born To Run” is an overfamiliar (though still rousing) cliche.
19. “Canadian Lover/Falcon’s Escape” (2000)
Here’s a fine example of Bejar’s early “classic-rock pastiche” mode, in which he builds from a rambling, Dylanesque dirge to roaring bar-band guitar heroics. He first hit upon this sound on the third Destroyer studio album, Thief, though he would refine and perfect it on subsequent LPs like 2001’s Streethawk: A Seduction, 2002’s This Night, and 2006’s Destroyer’s Rubies.
18. “Farrar, Straus & Giroux (Sea Of Tears)” (2001)
“I was just a f*ck-up,” Bejar once said of his early ’00s period. “That’s the point where I was just consumed by music and really delving into the history of music, but really the history of a certain kind of music: English music from the early ‘70s and glam rock. That’s when I put a band together and we actually rehearsed and started playing shows.” You can hear those influences on this ravishing ballad, which recalls the Kinks during their Muswell Hillbillies era. There are also echoes of David Berman, with whom Bejar would eventually collaborate, with disappointing results, on aborted sessions for Berman’s final album. “No man has ever hung from the rafters of a second home” is very Berman-esque, and remains one of Bejar’s most quotable lines.
17. “My Favorite Year” (2008)
Bejar has spoken of Trouble In Dreams — a not-wholly-successful transitional work perched between his two most popular albums, Destroyer’s Rubies and Kaputt — with affection, which is unsurprising given his own love for off-brand misfires by Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Joni Mitchell. Heard in the context of his discography, it sounds like an artist figuring out in real time that his old, rambling rock-based sound no longer quite works. Except, of course, when it still works smashingly well, like on this beautiful homage to “Heroes”-era Bowie that blisses out on an extended instrumental coda.
16. “It’s Gonna Take An Airplane” (2004)
The weirdest Destroyer LP unquestionably is Your Blues, in which Bejar set aside the drunken caterwauling of his previous two albums on a set of wildly theatrical songs played on cheesy MIDI synths. On paper, it sounds like a disaster, and even Bejar seemed to question himself after the album came out. “Like, was there some sort of strange death wish I had in making the record?” he said in one interview. “And I still listen to it with a certain amount of trepidation.” However, while Your Blues certainly is not for everybody — even amid a catalogue of “not for everybody” albums — it casts a strange, one-of-a-kind spell that’s utterly intoxicating if you’re on its wavelength, particularly on this fan favorite.
15. “Savage Night At The Opera” (2011)
When Kaputt threatened to make Bejar a minor indie star, he (of course) panicked. For a guy who had stubbornly stayed outside of mainstream culture for years, temporarily aligning with what was trendy in indie-rock circles, even accidentally, felt like a mistake. “People who had a history with Destroyer — they’re a small contingent, they’re not very vocal — but there’s a certain group of people, I think, who find Kaputt to be a questionable move,” he said ruefully in a 2015 Spin interview. In the same article, Bejar responds sardonically when the reporter mentions hearing one of the album’s silkiest, most Roxy Music-like jams, “Savage Night At The Opera,” at a Banana Republic. “I remember those days, when it was like, ‘Man, I heard your song at such and such.’ And I’d be like, ‘Yeah, Banana Republic’s the new nightclub. That’s where music goes down.’”
14. “3000 Flowers” (2006)
Bejar has often said in interviews that he doesn’t put any thought into his words. And yet, listening to “3000 Flowers” from Destroyer’s Rubies, it’s hard to believe that. For instance, take this lyric: “I was Clytemnestra on a good day / Dispensing wisdom to the uninitiated / The initiates brought out in tumbrels / Shat out by the dawn.” Is it possible that Bejar just happened to know, off the top of his damn head, that Clytemnestra is a figure from Greek mythology who, in Homer’s The Odyssey, murders her husband Agamemnon? Don’t answer that, this is a hypothetical question.
13. “Midnight Meet The Rain” (2015)
When I profiled Bejar during the press cycle for Poison Season, I asked his New Pornographers bandmate Carl Newman to explain what the deal is with his friend. And he offered up a trenchant insight: “He inhabits this interesting niche where he is a respected songwriter-lyricist but also an enigmatic rock star at the same time. He pushes people away and pulls them in with equal force. It’s a strange equilibrium.” I think about the phrase “strange equilibrium” whenever I hear “Midnight Meet The Rain,” a typically indecipherable narrative about the apocalypse in which Bejar references the lyrics of Dylan’s “Hurricane” and the swinging show-band arrangements of the infamous 1979 live album Bob Dylan At Budokan. It shouldn’t work, and yet the effect of all this perversity is magnetic.
12. “Holly Going Lightly” (2002)
Bejar’s intent with his fifth album, This Night, was to make a messy, drunken rock record that teeters constantly on the verge of embarrassing collapse without ever quite falling over. Listening to “Holly Going Lightly,” it’s clear that he achieved this directive with flying, puke-green colors. Special consideration should be given to Bejar’s guitarist and long-time co-conspirator Nicolas Bragg, who has helped to shepherd Destroyer records through all of the band’s many different sonic incarnations. On this song, he gets to play the thoroughly wasted guitar hero, wailing on a wild, endless solo while Bejar broods.
11. “Chinatown” (2011)
Bejar’s voice — an arch, conversational, irregular, and totally idiosyncratic whine that drives most casual listeners away — tends to melt into the rich soundscapes on Kaputt. This likely accounts, at least partly, for the album’s relative success. But another sweetening element is the presence of backing vocalist Sibel Thrasher, a jazz and blues session singer brought into the studio by the album’s producers. Thrasher’s honeyed purr makes an immediate impact on the album-opening “Chinatown,” affectingly duetting with Bejar on the evocative chorus.
10. “The Bad Arts” (2001)
The recent Pitchfork profile of Bejar includes a funny throwaway line about how he once “unabashedly equated bad taste with actual evil.” I’m guessing this was a reference to his haughty highlight from Streethawk, in which Bejar offers up this memorable snapshot of ’90s indie culture: “The world woke up one day to proclaim / ‘Thou shalt not take part in, or make, bad art’ / In these tough, tough times / Friends like mine would rather dash than dine/ On the bones of what’s thrown to them.”
9. “Tinseltown Swimming In Blood” (2017)
In 2015, Bejar was caught in a minor media kerfuffle when he remarked in a different Pitchfork interview that Taylor Swift gives him “the willies.” This was the era when music critics felt the need to constantly white-knight on behalf of millionaire pop stars facing disrespectful comments from indie cult heroes. A Deadspin op-ed even suggested that “those who cannot be Taylor Swift, talk trash about Taylor Swift.” I like to imagine that “Tinseltown Swimming In Blood” is Bejar’s retort to that headline, as it’s reminiscent of the ’80s pop throwbacks on Swift’s smash opus 1989 that so enamored critics. Turns out Bejar actually can make hooky pop songs, though he often chooses the path less taken instead.
8. “Bay Of Pigs” (2011)
While Kaputt is positioned as the “accessible” Destroyer album, it ultimately climaxes with this epic, unwieldy 11-minute masterwork that represents Bejar at his least compromised. The culmination of Bejar’s fascination with Scott Walker that first manifested on Your Blues, this surreal story song unfolds like a deathbed confession, or a biopic of the mind that flashes in the final moments of life. It’s also rich with so much descriptive sleaze: “I was ripped on dope. You were a ray of sunshine / I was a hopeless romantic, you were swine.”
7. “Rubies” (2006)
Destroyer’s catalogue is varied and consistent enough to merit multiple albums garnering “best in show” consideration. But there’s a strong case to be made that Destroyer’s Rubies is the “just right” option pitched between his “hot” early work and the “chill” of his post-Kaputt output. As Bejar put it to Spin, “There were a lot of people who liked one Destroyer record but hated another one. With Rubies, I don’t know if everyone decided that it was my best record, but everyone could agree that it was good.” On the title track, Bejar took the wild, caterwauling sound of This Night and made it seem elegant.
6. “This Night” (2002)
Then again, sometimes Bejar is at his best when he’s the opposite of elegant, and just straight-up seedy. For that reason, This Night remains one of my very favorite Destroyer albums. On the title track, Bejar and his band sound as if they’ve suddenly started recording at four in the morning after the bars closed. For the first 70 or so seconds, it seems as though they might stop playing and go back to drinking. But then they lurch into that first wordless chorus, and … it still seems like they might pass out. This struggle to stay afloat amid the murk defines the album, and it makes “This Night” in particular a mesmerizing listen.
5. “An Actor’s Revenge” (2004)
For all of the second-guessing that Bejar had about his “experimental” record Your Blues, it’s amazing how assured it sounds all these years later. He’s never sounded so outside of “normal” indie rock as he does on that record. The sheer splendor of my favorite track, “An Actor’s Revenge,” points to the New Romantics posturing of Kaputt. But it’s also completely its own vibe, with Bejar’s “ba da ba da”-ing over a soaring, synthetic horn part like a cyborg on Mars making his own version of Roxy Music’s Avalon in the 22nd century.
4. “Suicide Demo For Kara Walker” (2011)
Bejar claimed that the real Kara Walker, a renowned conceptual artist, wrote the bulk of this centerpiece stunner from Kaputt. “The stuff she wrote was definitely the springboard; I just had to mangle things in order to make them singable and get from one bit to the next,” he told the A.V. Club in 2011. “Probably the only song I’ve ever written that involved me just making stuff up on the spot and then getting up and walking away.” And yet it definitely seems like a quintessential Bejar lyric — funny, mysterious, pretentious, quietly crushing: “Four more years, four more years, 400 more years of this shit, fuck it / I look up I see the North Star, I look up I see the North Star / When I look up at the bar through these tears.”
3. “European Oils” (2006)
This song is No. 3 on my list, but the part where Bejar rasps “you f*cking maniac!” is No. 1 in my heart.
2. “Hey, Snow White” (2002)
The typical Destroyer song packs about 800 words in the space of five or six minutes. Among the things that sets “Hey, Snow White” apart is that it has about 25 words that Bejar manages to make feel like 800 words. He sings “Hey, Snow White, it’s gonna be alright, it’s gonna be alright” (technically 11 words, though more than half is just “it’s gonna be alright”) like a man either in the grips of an intense religious reckoning or a heroin overdose. Meanwhile, the music gets more and more intense, veering into crunchy, transcendental psych-rock territory as Bejar rapidly loses his damn mind. To be honest, this probably isn’t the second-best Destroyer song, but it is surely the single most riveting performance he’s ever put to tape.
1. “The Sublimation Hour” (2001)
Dan Bejar’s relationship to rock history has always seemed equal parts authoritative and ironic — he can weave references to the AOR canon throughout his songs with ease, and yet he’s sure to maintain a quasi-comic distance from power chords and messianic posing. That is, except in his greatest song, which represents a genuine attempt on Bejar’s part to write the greatest f*cking anthem of all time. His strategy is sound: Rip off the guitar riff from “All The Young Dudes,” make deep-cut references to Dylan and Hendrix, and then, at the most dramatic moment, quote “London Calling.” After this he would get smoother and smarter and sexier, but he was never more lovable.