Ellen Kempner is the vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter for the Boston and New York-based indie rock trio Palehound. Their latest record, Eye on the Bat, is out now Polyvinyl.
I’m gonna be honest, I’m a Destroyer poser. For years people have been recommending Dan Bejar’s songs to me and they’ve just kind of slipped through my fingers. There’s no reason why I never listened, I just didn’t. I’d forget. However, when he released his latest record Have We Met a few weeks ago and friends started asking me if I’d heard it, I decided it was time to see what this was all about, and ever since I’ve been kicking myself for not listening sooner. I became enchanted with Have We Met as soon as I heard the first lyrics: “I was lying in the laziest river/a vulture predisposed to eating off floors/No wait, I take that back/I was more like an ocean/Stuck inside hospital corridors.” In those lines and the rest of the album, I recognized a quality Bejar has that I’ve always strived for as a songwriter, an unflinching casual honesty in his lyrics and the way he recites them.
I say “recites” because it feels more fitting than to call it singing. This album feels more like a collection of poetry or a conversation with a drunk friend, in a really great way. Bejar often peppers little humanizing lines into his metaphorical landscapes, as he did in the above lyrics, retracting a comparison to a lazy river with “no wait, I take that back,” choosing instead to express as a stifled ocean. Those are the moments that strike the deepest — they keep Bejar’s voice humble and grounded within his disjointed, hazy universe.
This universe is devastating, but also funny as hell. It’s a very confusing combination that I got lost in for the first few listens, trying to grasp for a solid feeling to hold onto. It was impossible, too fleeting and ever-changing. Perhaps my favorite song on the album, “The Raven,” sums up this confusion. The song opens with Bejar warning, “just look at the world around you/Actually no, don’t look” over radio static build up, then breaks into a piano part that almost sounds like a U2 song, until it disappears and gives way to a repetition of the first warning and a continuation of the thought, a condemnation of the “city of dying embers.” I spent most of the song wondering where this city is. He seems to be stuck in a place that feels like purgatory, with references to the joys of fucking up while living, and “oh, how it feels so good/To be drunk on the field again,” countered by dances of the dead in the “Grand Ole Opry of Death.” The lyrics ping-pong between heartbreaking questions like “For whom have you been saving?” and hilariously bizarre references like “the petite Terror Train that thought it could.” These contrasts whip me around violently at times when listening to this record; I find myself pondering a bigger question about death, and then suddenly I’m remembering The Little Engine That Could and being read to as a child. It’s weirdly therapeutic.
The humor on this record is artful in its deception. At the times when I’d find myself laughing while listening, I’d question where it was coming from and found that most of the time it was anxiety. Possibly the “funniest” song on the record is “The Television Music Supervisor.” The refrain of “The television music supervisor said ‘I can’t believe what I’ve done, I can’t believe that I said what I said,” was at first funny to me in how random the character is, and the relatability of regretting something you said. He follows with a verse that, when reading the lyrics I laughed, but when hearing him sing it, I cringed. Bejar makes a joke about “famous novelist brothers Shithead No. 1 and Shithead No 2.” and it lands heavy. For some reason, when it feels like he’s intentionally trying to be funny, it feels creepy, it feels dark. The song goes on, he repeats the refrain, and its meaning starts to morph. The vocals echo on “I can’t believe,” and start to fade away. It hit me after a few listens in that this could be representing the music supervisor’s last thoughts as he drifts to sleep, or into death, and I can’t tell if that makes it funnier or scarier.
The production and arrangement on Have We Met does a lot to emphasize the intention of the lyrics, they spin the stories. If the lyrics are a drawing of a kitten, the music is the backdrop of a city on fire. The instrumentation and style is very consistent through the record. The music borders on adult contemporary, but toes the line perfectly; it’s just creepy enough to make you feel grounded and completely insane at the same time. Above the drums and spacey synths, a distorted guitar plays classic rock licks throughout almost the whole album. It’s a thread that to me, defines the record. It’s sleazy, beautiful, generic, and completely unnerving.
The second track, “Kinda Dark,” opens with a character that “wandered in there, you wanted it in there”. It ends with the character saying “Kind of dark in here.” On the last song, “foolssong.” Bejar says “I walked into the room and was made sick by the room”. This record feels like that room. It’s inviting and enchanting, but disturbing. I love this room, but I feel sick as well. “foolssong” closes out the record with an ethereal chorus that fades out, then silence, then a cacophony of noise. When I close my eyes and listen to this ending, I can picture Dan Bear walking out of the room triumphant to the sound of a choral applause, only to trip and fall down the stairs. Maybe that’s the only way to exit the room at all.