Destroyer @ Underground Arts

When Dan Bejar sings ruefully “I’ve seen it all,” you’ll believe him. The slouching pop mastercrafter gave a spellbinding performance to a packed room at Underground Arts last Monday, in support of his eleventh studio record, “ken”. The album draws on more goth and 80s synth-pop influences than his previous, still woven through with his iconically cryptic lyrics.

Simply listening to his recordings, one hears a sardonic quality in Bejar’s delivery. But seeing him live lends the lyrics an almost despairing earnestness. Whether imploring or berating, he punches each syllable of tongue-twisting verse with knit eyebrows and white knuckles. During instrumental interludes, he would kneel down to take a swig of Modelo’s and fitfully comb at his wild, greying mane.

The band opened with a few tracks from the new album, “In the Morning” and “Tinseltown Swimming in Blood”. The 8-piece ensemble conjured a full, slowburn sound remniscent of New Order to back the vocal’s heart wrenching intensity. This touring band has been together since the release of 2011’s Kaputt, the soaring pop album that earned Destroyer a nomination for Canada’s highly competitive Polaris Music Prize. The tempo then picked up with the glitzy track of the same name, the audience beginning to groove along with the band. By the time they launched into the ecstatic instrumental freakout at the end of the sunny and dramatic “Times Square” from 2015’s Poison Season, everyone in the room was enthusiastically bobbing along.

Perhaps the best moment of the night was an inspired rendition of Kaputt’s “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker”, which the trumpet player opened by bending and looping his sounds on an effects board for two or three minutes,  to create a sonic palette straight out of a Michael Bay film. The movement climaxed with a sailing riff on the alto flute and Bejar clapping away at a tambourine. While the emphasis throughout the night was songs from the latest album, several more tracks from Kaputt, Poison Season, and even a few from further back in his massive discography appeared. 

It’s hard not to notice the cloud of cynicism that enshrines Bejar. Throughout the performance, he barely acknowledged the audience, doing away with any chatter between songs. The most he offered was a small, flourishy bow mid-performance, a gesture mimicking the anachronistic elegance that often appears in his music. This cynicism was especially apparent when he waved his hand toward the crowd while singing “why’s everybody sing along when we built this city on ruins?” But he ended the night with the upbeat anthem “Dream Lover”, a song Bejar himself described as “a positive reinforcement song for very negative people.” And, for the first time the whole evening, the misanthropic rocker cracked an almost imperceptible smile.