Review Summary: Destroyer continue to map out unexpected territories with referential landmarks, with magnificent results.
Smooth jazz, soft-rock disco, and 80’s new wave are volatile genres to be playing with if you’re Dan Bejar (or, anybody for that matter). If you were to poll the average Destroyer fan regarding their favourite genres, these three wouldn’t exactly be popular choices. The reasons are obvious: all three contain some of the worst music of their respective eras. But before I instill fears of Kenny G and music videos on boats with cheesy saxophone solos, let me remind you that this is Dan Bejar. Destroyer has never been your typical band and Bejar not your typical front man. Not that they are particularly weird or avant-garde, no, but they’ve always managed to find an edge to their music. Even earlier releases like Streethawks: A Seduction
, when Destroyer was mainly a bedroom pop act, Bejar did it his way--mostly because we were still a few years off from that particular style becoming the “in” thing. Essentially the band has always been able to fully inhabit a sound to make it their own. Why the self-described “European Blues” of Destroyer’s Rubies
feels so authentic is because Bejar captures a self-reflexive world with his referential melodies and even more referential, labyrinthine lyrics. These edges always manage to take the listener into unexpected territories by mapping out cultural, thematic, and narrative landmarks.
In so many words, Bejar is a musical academic. So when Trouble in Dreams
dropped a couple of years back, it was met with mixed critical and commercial responses. Not because it was a bad record, and it certainly wasn’t received poorly, but because it felt like Bejar was stasis. Perhaps it was us, the listeners’ fault, by placing too much expectation on the group. In fact it was somewhat of a disservice to a group as talented as Destroyer to write off Trouble in Dreams
as a “good” but not “great” album; but people are fickle, and them kids live in the moment with their MTV and their purple stuff. Then the Bay of Pigs
EP dropped and suddenly there was a new found anticipation towards a full length Destroyer release. A small buzz of hype was building, giving renewed kinetic energy to the brand. There was a reason to talk about Destroyer again with the same excitement and hype that circulated around the internet prior to the release of Rubies
. There was an anticipatory movement, if reserved, hovering around the prospects of a 2011 release. And here it is: Kaputt
What made Bay of Pigs
such a welcomed recording was the new direction it took; how fresh it felt while further emphasizing the lyrical virtuosity of Bejar who’s certainly one of, if not the, best lyricists in the business. Plus it also had one the best songs of the year in “Bay of Pigs”, which is thankfully present on Kaputt
as the album closer. And a perfect closer at that, as Bejar even edited the weakest part of the original by removing the extended, two minute ambient outro and cutting the song length down from thirteen minutes to a brisk eleven. Now the final refrain of the album, where Bejar sings “free and easy, gentle, gentle / the wind through the trees makes you mental, for me / Nancy in a state of crisis on a cloud,” packs more weight without the additional two minutes. It’s a final moment of catharsis, which is only really understood upon repeated listens. Because where the music may not be the most challenging, the lyrics themselves require careful attention.
The listener needs the attention to realize the sadness and dejection within the confines of Kaputt
. The music itself sparks with a sultry sexiness that perhaps has an even greater impact when juxtaposed to the lyrics. The saxophones allure with smooth lines, the bass wobbles, and the keys glide with just the right amount of 80’s nuance. Oh, and that female voice that keeps appearing, Vancouver native Sibel Thrasher (!), makes you think you may just be watching a Sharon Stone flick with that throaty vibrato. Not to mention all those nods to reappearing female figures (Christine, Nancy, Dixie, etc.). Yes, it all seems very sensual--until you start to understand the inflections of the subdued vocal delivery of Bejar and the allusive, elusive, and lonely lyrics. To reiterate: an edge. Those smooth saxophone lines are matched by haunted trumpets that recall late career Miles Davis, and often become dissonant as they approach idioms of free and acid jazz on “Chinatown” and “Downtown”.
All of this culminates in the lyrics, which have always been the center of Bejar’s worlds. Like all great lyrical excursions, Kaputt
is not exactly what it appears at first. That’s because, as Jonathan Swift can attest to, to criticize something you must first show that you know it. The braggadocio of the title track really amounts to the criticism of a pathetic aspect of American culture: “wasting your days / chasing cocaine through the back rooms of the world.” If Bejar is going to critique popular culture, he has to show that he knows it. This is where he layers reference upon reference to The Beatles, Jefferson Starship, The Cure, Last Tango in Paris
, literature, and films galore. The telling line on of the album is made with the aid of (a very good) artist named Kara Walker. On the absolutely stunning “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker” (see, it’s referential), the smooth beat and warm atmosphere collide with the defeated lines that concede, “poor child, you’re never going to make it / New York City just wants to see you naked / and they will.” All the criticisms, judgments, and exonerations on Kaputt are held within that final line. “And they will,” as if it were just tacked on, an aside to failure.
Because failure is a fear sprinkled subtly throughout Kaputt
. Every time he mentions writing “a song for America”, Bejar retorts to himself with patronizing remarks. In a teaser paragraph that accompanied some release information, Bejar cryptically described the album as, among “80’s Miles Davis…90’s Gil Evans…fretless bass,” exploring the “hopelessness of the future of music” and the, “pointlessness of writing songs for today.” Perhaps this is why he’s made an album that is so clearly steeped in traditions of modern music. Traditions that an individual talent has internalized, morselized, and grafted into an album that goes down smooth before tearing at your insides. So when he finally gets to his “Song for America”, it isn’t “just clever,” it’s superb. Those genre tags didn’t turn out to be volatile for Bejar and company after all. This isn’t a failure, not at all. In fact it might be the first fully realized album, in all respects, of Destroyer's history. This is a triumphantly singular album that explores a space that only this band could have made.