Thursday, March 17, 2011
Destroyer: Kaputt (2011)
Let's get this out of the way: this is a brilliant record. Confounding, provocative, strange, rewarding, a singular thing in its own world from a singular mind like Highway 61 Revisited or Love You or Death of a Ladies' Man. So much going on here, indeed, it's too sophisticated to be readily dissected now. The summary is that Dan Bejar rambles and meanders over soundscapes borrowed from twenty year-old Hall & Oates slash Mr. Mister slash Thompson Twins slash Berlin slash Phil Collins slash Sting nonsense, replete with the cheap sax solos and a generally overwhelming lushness. And he sings these songs all like they're showtunes, like he has to fit every syllable he possibly can into an ever-shrinking number of seconds. This is unadulerated weirdness.
But it's a personable, warm weirdness, not the weirdness of, say, Ariel Pink, who can riff on the soft rock genre along with any number of other recyclables from his collection. But Bejar dwells on a preoccupation and fucks around with it until it suits his needs, not the other way around. Much as Leonard Cohen did in the late '80s, Bejar modifies a specific genre construct, a product of a time, and squeezes it until its age, its pangs of nostalgia, disappear, and it becomes just another noise for him to corrupt. Call it Gothic soft rock, or soft Gothic rock if you like, and think of it as highly peculiar 2010s Americana -- very distinctly based on the fridge buzz that probably circulated around Bejar when he was young, if he was, as the song goes, twenty years old in 1992.
The songs come into focus after a time, but initially they all seem to exist simply to serve one another and give a larger impression, blending together with Bejar's twisted, beautifully idiosyncractic voice weaving in and out. "Chinatown" sets the smooth scene, "Suicide Demo for Kara Walker" brings priceless guitar and flute to a Peter Gabriel circus, the slyly romantic "Poor in Love" offers an intriguing build and stark variation on the trad soft-rock sax, "Downtown" provides AM choral female backing alongside Tom Waits-level insistence, and everything else surrounding "Song for America" gives in to its slick bass line. But three cuts offer well-paced climaxes: "Savage Night at the Opera" quickens things up stunningly with its earnest OMD ba-da-da-dum pop; the title track's shimmering 1980s evocations come equipped with crazed propulsion and the album's most sophisticated melodic trickery. At last, "Bay of Pigs" is the full-on ejaculation, the extended cacophonious triumph of broken-mirror pop music, its tension teasingly ever-mounting.
But so much of Kaputt's art and craft (if not pleasure) is in the power of Bejar's phrasing, the way he forms his coos and cries around his words, the way they jut out and seduce from repetition and command. His obliquely expressed, carefully sung words begin to wrap around the listener, their memory lingering at times as strongly as that of the songs themselves: "walk away, I can walk away"; "I write poetry for myself"; "I won't and I never will"; "Don't be ashamed and disgusted with yourselves"; "Set the loop and then go wild"; "Enter through the exit and exit through the entrance"; "I look up, I see the north star"; "Wasting your days chasing some girls-- all right, chasing cocaine to the backrooms of the world" (repeated immediately, fully aware of how striking it is); "Wandering around the world"; "As apocalypses go, that's pretty good sha la la, wouldn't you say?"; "Christiiiine!"
The record is much more than a glide through adult contemporary conventions with brilliant lyrics; Bejar celebrates those clichés and magnifies their appeal. This is not a challenge to reevaluate old music, or -- how condescending -- an attempt to make something bad into something good. There is straightfaced love here, and that's hardly the point since this is hardly a simple tribute. I'm not a Hall & Oates fan either; the thing is, H&O never exposed this much, never offered themselves like this. Destroyer might be banking on ghosts of the past here, but in the same manner of so many lo-fi and chillwave artists; Dan Bejar runs across and over his predecessors and devises something that belongs to him -- could in fact be no one else's.