Dan Bejar and the Bravery of Artistic Isolation
What does it mean to isolate oneself artistically and what bearing can that have on the art one produces? Ahmed Ragheb explores the music of Dan Bejar’s Destroyer in the context of that very isolation.
This January, while hunting for new music to listen to, I came across a (then) brand new single by Destroyer titled “Cue Synthesizer” off the (then) upcoming album, Have We Met. I listened to it and loved it. I listened to the other singles and loved them. I would eventually download the album and love it. I had not actually heard of Destroyer before this. It is the primary musical project of Dan Bejar, I would learn. I will admit that I had not heard of The New Pornographers either, the band of which Bejar is a part. So I did what any self-respecting music lover would do: I took a deep dive into Bejar’s discography as Destroyer and I did not love it. I thought immediately that Bejar’s songwriting was overwrought and tried too hard to spin Dylanesque witticisms and wisdoms wrapped up in biblical vocabulary – something that generally inspires frustration in me when it comes from anyone but Bob Dylan or at the very least his contemporaries (doing it at a time when it still seemed fresh). While I truly enjoyed his newest release, I just felt the older stuff lacked the genuine, albeit somehow laidback, urgency of the Have We Met.
I was wrong. 100% wrong and with no excuses. In fact, this article is as much an argument as to why you, my readers, ought to listen to Destroyer’s music – all of it – as it is a personal apology to Dan Bejar, regardless of whether or not he reads it.
I’ll start first with what had originally thrown me for a loop with Bejar, as it’s directly connected with what has so captured me now: just how “legitimate” the man is. It can be impossible, these days more than ever, to parse out the genuine from the carefully measured personas so many musicians craft for themselves. Suddenly confronted with – what I now know to be real – artistic integrity and honesty, I doubted it. Too cynical for my own good? Yes, maybe I am, but the music industry isn't exactly in a great state today so I’d say that that defense mechanism is justified (I’m not making excuses, I promise – just trying to offer an explanation).
The deep bond that has since formed between Dan Bejar, as musician, and myself, as listener, is rooted in a fundamental disappointment – bordering on apathy – of the artistic world today. Sure, commiseration is not a cure to disillusionment, but it seems to help a little – so what the hell? Like every other musical artist, Bejar’s lyrics explore what we all might expect them to: love found, love lost, relationships, social issues, etc. But across all of his music, one theme seems to rise above it all: the importance – or at the very least a detailing – of artistic isolation.
It’s not that Bejar lives out in the middle of nowhere, shunning society and only reemerging for recording sessions; he lives in Vancouver – the capital of British Columbia is not exactly off the beaten path. However, Vancouver isn’t New York City, or Los Angeles, or London – or even Toronto for that matter. Surely Bejar could have moved to one of these shining cities during his twenty-plus year-long career – many others would and did (not to knock Vancouver, but leaving is apparently the thing to do). However, Bejar stayed and one gets the sense that the (relative) isolation afforded to him by Vancouver is as loud a statement as any you’ll find on his records. It’s a statement that's as brave as it is needed, especially today. It’s not easy to shun the powers that be and buck the norms of one’s industry but Bejar has stood strong, a thoroughly independent character (musically, at least). He is the artist’s artist.
In “Destroyer’s The Temple,” off Thief (1998), Bejar offers a balm to the burns of the marginalized: “The popular singers, they're mean to us/You'll find: There's joy in being barred from the temple.” These are two simple lines from which spring a wealth of good advice for the artistically minded about perspective and state of mind. Years later, on Poison Season, an older, slightly more subdued but no less sharp Bejar returns with what has become, to me at least, an anthem and mantra: “The River.” It is an absolute masterpiece and (as is the case with so many Destroyer songs) is almost a self-contained manifesto: a plea to those trapped and imprisoned by a culture and industry that has not only told them what to think but has dictated the vocabulary with which to express their thoughts. In fact, Bejar comes right out and says it: “Escape from New York / Escape from LA / Take it from me, leave London.” He goes on to elucidate, in a way only Dan Bejar could, the absurdity and contradiction of the lifestyle he rails against: “You study your braille. You listen to the hail outside / A comedy of souls / A plot thick with holes / In a windowless room on the outskirts of town / Overlooking / The river.”
If this all sounds a little like the kid you knew in college that you thought was a little full of himself, going on and on about “the man” and pontificating endlessly on the quad, that’s okay. I’m not going to fight you on that, but I will ask you to consider this: maybe he was on to something.
I’ve only isolated two songs as examples in this article. There are many dozens more that I could have included but for the sake of time and space, I’ve left it at two. I urge everyone reading this to give all of his music a thorough listen. If you’re an artist, however, I would have to insist that you do this as soon as possible.
As you may be able to tell by now, I’m not only a fan of Bejar’s music but an admirer of him as an artist. I am an artist myself and have had moments of weakness and self-doubt, moments in which I question the same ideals that I staked so much of my life on. Moments in which I have questioned the validity and plausibility of the things I so passionately and proudly espoused. It has so often felt scary and, above all, lonely. It’s in these moments that I have found not only a deep comfort in the music of Dan Bejar but even a joy in being barred from the temple. ▲
Ahmed Ragheb is an independent filmmaker from Cairo, Egypt. He is now based in Pittsburgh and, with his partner, Lily, he is working on a series of short films. You can follow along with them on social media at @dogdoorfilms!