The Sublime Creations of Destroyer
Destroyer, the project of Vancouver singer-songwriter Dan Bejar, has a new album out called Kaputt, a clumsy word written in very classy script on the cover. It sounds different from his last album (2008's Trouble in Dreams), which is something you could say about a lot of Destroyer albums. While Bejar's home base is a rough, folksy variation on English glam rock, he routinely derails his routine: 2004's Your Blues, for example, was a synthesizer-heavy, drum-free album that sounds like Les Miserables starring an angry Jewish cantor mid-nervous breakdown. He has released singles of himself speaking over ambient music. He has released an EP of Destroyer covers. He once told an interviewer that the innovation behind 2002's This Night was to not bother rehearsing his band before recording. The creative self-sabotage is part of his appeal: It's proof that he's concerned more for art than brand integrity.
Bejar is known as a sharp lyricist, first and foremost. His writing often deals with music and art: Why people make it, the various ways in which they are terrible at making it, the ideals they compromise to succeed in the marketplace, the spiritual void of those compromises, and other increasingly joyless topics. His observations are funny and careful; his disses are as brutal as Oscar Wilde's. ("Why do you work for the festival when you're sick of lifting spirits to the sky? 'Body' and 'soul': two words for that same nameless thing you have never known." Daaaaaaaaaamn.) His voice is needling and whiny, but it has to be: In a world where people are generally more comfortable with the words "Let's party" than "You've got to stay critical or die," whining is his best chance of being heard.
Kaputt is his leisure-rock album. Sometimes it sounds like early-'90s New Order, sometimes like mid-'80s Roxy Music, sometimes like a whole list of barely remembered bands with no discernible legacy. His disco-lite moment, sweatless and continental. There are several smooth trumpet and saxophone solos. They sound generic; they're there to conjure the idea of a nightclub, the idea of a smooth sax solo. The music has fun, but Bejar doesn't—he sounds sapped and weary. He's the smartest guy in the room and bent on walking into rooms where nobody wants to listen to him. He recently told Pitchfork that he recorded some of the vocals while "fixing myself a sandwich."
These are the juxtapositions that make Kaputt—and all of Bejar's music—smart and worthwhile. "Poor in Love," for example, is anthemic in the same way Bowie and Queen's "Under Pressure" is, the sound of skyscrapers and progress, of '80s video footage of Tokyo. But the song ends just as it finally starts to build, and concludes with the line, "Why's everybody sing along when we built this city on ruins?," which not only feels bad to sing along to, but is effectively an attack on the entire impulse to sing along. It's like getting a toy for Christmas and immediately being told it is very dangerous.
Kaputt's conceit—delivering occasionally philosophical ramblings over cocktail rock—is funny for the same reason it would be funny to have a four-year-old read a quarterly report at a shareholders' meeting: The context is sour and absurd. But Bejar is also tender, in a backhanded way. As "Blue Eyes" dissolves into ambient prettiness, he half-whispers, "I sent a message in a bottle to the press/It said, 'Don't be ashamed or disgusted with yourselves.' " As with all his albums, Kaputt's most sincere moments are also where its ironies are the thickest, and what saves him from ever sounding academic are the jokes, the asides, the murmurs of the heart—it all goes to show that despite his intelligence, he's not just a gigantic brain being wheeled around in a jar.
The musical history Bejar revives here is marked by leisure and indulgence, but his imitations sound post-excess, a cold cobblestone street and a hangover. Tired, but beautifully so. Sometimes Kaputt is a facsimile of its influences; sometimes it sounds more like a kind of grotesque commentary. (The opening lines of the title track, which could soundtrack a montage of well-oiled bankers partying in slow-motion: "Wasting your days, chasing some girls all right/Chasing cocaine through the back rooms of the world all night.") Like Steely Dan's Gaucho or Leonard Cohen's Death of a Ladies' Man, it's both breezy and bitter, a contradiction, an album that grinds against itself relentlessly. The concept is lofty, so it helps that the music is entertaining—maybe his most entertaining, if not his most lyrically rigorous.
Which is an important point: Kaputt is unquestionably a Destroyer album, but the things that I think bothered people about Destroyer before—the relentlessness of the writing, Bejar's nasal, wordless, quasi-Hebraic choruses—have been toned down. The songs sound shapeless in a way that gives the album a feeling of unprecedented drift. The choruses are mantric and repetitive, and the tracks sound like they could be lengthened or shortened without losing their essence. It's the first Destroyer album that anyone could dance to (unless you like waltzing alone), and the first I can imagine anyone bothering to remix. Bejar's chokehold—his brilliant but almost repulsive intensity—is relaxed. All of a sudden, the words really need the music to survive.
The American underground—Bejar's phrase—is in identity crisis. "Yacht rock" is a concept with cache. Soft-focus opulence is suddenly a virtue. Twentysomethings are making music they would have shit on as teenagers. In LCD Soundsystem's prophetic words, we're reeling in "Borrowed nostalgia for an unremembered '80s," but the nostalgia has shifted from an alternative sound (post-punk) to a nauseatingly marketable one (in a word, Loggins). The trick now is to make cool what never was, usually with rhetoric and a lot of echo.
Bejar doesn't hide behind these pretenses. His faith in the sound is a rebuttal to his irony. He's in deadlock with himself. His love is bitter and strange that way: He prods and pecks and criticizes, but still sounds passionately invested in everything he does. The Destroyer paradox is that every album Bejar makes contains at least one argument for why it shouldn't exist. The beauty of the paradox is that he makes them anyway.
Destroyer play Webster Hall April 3
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