Shortlist shortcut to Destroyer's Labyrinthitis
Frontman Dan Bejar says 'Tintoretto, it's for You' is the 'most fully realized world' on his nominated album
To help music fans get to know the 10 Polaris Music Prize-nominated albums, CBC Music presents the Shortlist Shortcut series. Every week, we're asking a nominated artist for a recommended track off their shortlisted record. Perhaps it's a song that best represents the themes on the album, or maybe it's the most important, difficult or rewarding song they wrote. The question was left to the artist to interpret, but the hope is that the selected track will give us a pathway into their work.
For the 10th and final instalment of this series, we spoke with Destroyer frontman Dan Bejar, whose latest album, Labyrinthitis, marks his return to the Polaris Music Prize short list since his first shortlist nomination in 2011 for his album Kaputt. He was longlisted two other times, in 2008 for Trouble in Dreams and 2016 for Poison Season.
Destroyer frontman Dan Bejar hates "Tintoretto, it's for You," but he also claims that it's the best song off his 13th studio album, the 2022 Polaris Music Prize shortlisted Labyrinthitis.
Of course that opinion, and Bejar's general relationship with his work, is always changing and evolving. Now, nearly six months removed from the release of this album, Bejar says he thought performing these songs live would "give me new insight into the true nature of the record," but he has instead found that "it fractured my mind even further on the subject of songs, what they mean, what they're supposed to do, to the point that I can't imagine ever writing another one."
Fear not though, Bejar isn't quitting music any time soon. Rather, he says this offers a "kind of cool feeling," highlighting how the incoherence of the songs on Labyrinthitis is not a bug, but a feature.
Perhaps that is why it was so hard for Bejar to choose just one song as a gateway track into this album. (When asked that question, he responded, "The album refuses this question, it's weird that way.") Each song on Labyrinthitis is its own world, its own distinct vibe, all under the guise of a dark and twisted dance record. Trying to string all 10 tracks together thematically almost feels futile, going against the grain of what the album wants, which is an equal spotlight for each track. "I have no instructions on how to digest Labyrinthitis as a record," he explains. "As a listener of music, I can't imagine being receptive to any."
That said, Bejar can agree that lead single "Tintoretto, it's for You," as well as his self-proclaimed favourite song (at least at the time of this interview), "It's in Your Heart Now," are the "most fully realized worlds on the album" thanks to frequent collaborator and producer John Collins, whom Bejar credits as the "architect" of this project.
For "Tintoretto, it's for You" in particular, Collins says he wanted to challenge himself as a producer "the way dance music remixers often do, by some extent disregarding the original music" that Bejar sent over. Collins continues: "I wanted the songs to have the benefit of a musical reinvention even before their initial release. This approach didn't always yield edible fruit, but with 'Tintoretto,' I got swept up in a dark, gothy mood I could hear in Dan's vocals and lyrics." As Collins sent updated mixes of the track to Bejar, Collins would jokingly "taunt him with photos of Jaz Coleman covered in greasepaint looking unhinged and caption them, 'This is you now: Dan Bejar, goth icon.'" Bejar, Collins assures, "took my ribbing in stride."
On its surface, "Tintoretto, it's for You" feels like an odd single to lead with. Musically, it starts off sparse, a chugging riff carries us through the track with piano flourishes floating in and out ominously. Bejar's voice is part Tom Waits, part Vincent Price, rattling lyrics off like a spoken-word artist. By the time a drum beat enters a third of the way in, it mimics a panicked heartbeat as Bejar builds up the tension of a phone call, repeating the words "and ringing" until the dam bursts open and out comes an oversized synth line that feels like a menacing force unleashed.
The track is about the Grim Reaper and death, but the 15th-century painter whose name the song bears came rather randomly. "I have no relationship with the painter Tintoretto, or visual art in general," Bejar says. In an interview with Pitchfork, he expanded a bit more on the meaning behind this choice:
I associate Tintoretto with faking my way through a conversation about art; visual art interests me in a social sense, but compared to music, film or reading a book, it doesn't have the same emotional impact on me. I had a vague recollection of me throwing around Tintoretto as a painter I liked in my 20s, just such utter bullshit. It's totally like young Dan Bejar to pick a semi-obscure Venetian painter. For some reason the name haunted me that way, just as an emblem of my own portentousness. Of something you reckon with decades later, when death is knocking on your door.
Bejar has always liked the theme of death, noting, "in the light of that theme, there is a fear and menace that shadows every waking moment of your life, if your head's not in the right place. The idea gets extra-dramatic and useful when applied to an Old Master."
For Bejar, death is an equalizer. "In spite of our 'works,' we are dust," he continues. And maybe that's part of the problem around the idea of zeroing in on one defining track off Labyrinthitis — whether everything becomes meaningful or irrelevant in the end, what's the point in overthinking an album-listening experience? Just dive in and discover your own truth. That's what Dan Bejar is still trying to do.