Review Summary: A gorgeous album in virtually every respect, Kaputt sees Dan Bejar toning down some of the lyrical excesses of his previous efforts and experimenting with radically new sounds, resulting in one of the most refined releases of 2011.
As I've been reading the initial reviews of Destroyer's Kaputt in the wake of its success in various 'best of year' polls, one thing has struck me as being very odd, and common to all of them; their focus on how 'uncool' it all is, musically speaking. Yes, fine, the instrumental aspect of the album is redolent of the gloriously cheesy late 70s and early 80s phase of synth pop and smooth jazz, replete with sax solos and dreamy synth breaks galore, but I'm perplexed by how much of a talking point this seems to have been for most critics. So I'll get that out of the way here; yes, the album is unashamedly uncool in this respect, but it would be doing Kaputt, and indeed Destroyer's Dan Bejar, a disservice to say that the most interesting thing about the album was how it inverted these 80s trends and made genuinely great music out of them.
Why? Because, cheesy aesthetics aside, Kaputt is a genuinely brilliant album in its own right, regardless of its anachronistic tendencies. From the smooth opening chord progression and synth chimes of first track Chinatown to the breathtakingly lyrical conclusion of the album at the end of Bay Of Pigs, Kaputt reeks of a songwriter who is so at ease with his craft as to be able to reel off an album of almost consistently perfect songs, or at least pretty damn near.
But, as Destroyer fans will argue, the idea of a near-perfect album isn't really too big a statement considering Bejar's previous releases. 2006's Destroyer's Rubies was itself a sprawling, superb effort, and 2008's Trouble In Dreams continued his streak of greatness in style. Despite this astonishingly good track record, however, something had to give; Destroyer's style of confident lyricism married with soaring classic rock instrumentals had gone as far as it possibly could with Trouble In Dreams, and as such the change to more subdued, chilled out sounds on Kaputt was welcomed with open arms.
And with the results of such an experimental change being songs like these, there were no complaints to be made about such a radical shift from Destroyer's classic rock sound of albums gone by. The aforementioned Chinatown would make a superb soundtrack to a lazy day at the beach or speeding down the highway in a convertible as the sun sets, it's major 7th-oriented progression recalling America's Ventura Highway to great effect. Suicide Demo For Kara Walker opens with a smooth jazz jam that transitions impossibly perfectly into a disco groove, before noiry trumpets join the mix to create an atmosphere quite unlike any other to be found in Destroyer's back catalogue. The title track is arguably the highlight of the whole album, opening with a wash of soothing guitar and synths, the nostalgic lyrics complemented by subtly mournful saxophone fills.
It wouldn't be a Dan Bejar album without all sorts of lyrical ingenuity and recondite allusions, though, and in this respect, Kaputt marks a quasi-departure from his antecedent two releases. It's a departure in that the lyrics are often more spare and restrained this time around, but it's only a quasi-departure due to the typically cryptic nature of what actually is on offer, lyrically speaking. Suicide Demo For Kara Walker is, supposedly, about the struggle of black women emigrating to America, but one would be hard pressed to get that from the obscure repeated mantras which make up the song's meat, lyrically. Chinatown is a neat encapsulation of the tone of Roman Polanski's noir classic of the same name, oddly lyrically restrained for Destroyer, but to brilliant effect.
Despite what I may have just made out to be a relative paucity in lyrical prowess this time around, thankfully there are still moments of gorgeous poetry scattered throughout every song on the album. Be it Blue Eyes' breathy coda of 'I thumb through the books on your shelves,' the cynical 'why does everybody sing along, if we built this city on ruins?' of Poor In Love, or the effortlessly evocative closing lyrics of Bay of Pigs and, indeed, the whole album, 'free and easy, gentle gentle, the wind through the trees makes you mental for me,' Bejar's ample talent for wordsmithery is certainly still alive and kicking on Kaputt, it's just slightly more restrained and spread out, which is by no means a bad thing.
Now that the dust has settled after the hype surrounding the album's release, it would be easy enough to look back on the zeitgeist of Kaputt as hollow praise of marrying such an interesting choice of instrumentals with Destroyer's typical lyrical elegance. But the music on Kaputt is so much more than a novelty or a throwback; it's the perfect marriage for the quietly mournful, nostalgic tone of the album. Despite this, it's important not to let this get in the way of our appreciation of what a beautiful album Bejar really has crafted in Kaputt, full of magical moments and lyrical turns the likes of which would make even Bob Dylan blush. Regardless of the listener's feelings on 'cheesy 80s music' and the role it plays in the experience of Kaputt, the album is nigh-on perfect in its own right and fully deserving of all the praise it got both upon its release and at the end of the year. I'm still not sure that it's the best Destroyer album, but it's certainly the most thoughtful and, perhaps most importantly, the most mature. Essential.