It’s been close to ten years since Destroyer’s Dan Bejar last performed on stage with a guitar. Somewhere in between the magisterial Rubies from 2006 and the stately synth-rock of 2008’s Trouble in Dreams, Bejar seems to have become preoccupied with performance and the self-consciousness of the frontman as the primary projector of a band’s image. In the case of a band like Destroyer, who constantly recreate an enigmatic and singular mythos for themselves with each new release, the role of the frontman as an expressive embodiment of the music’s form is amplified. Far be it from me to say what songs like Leopard of Honor or European Oils are really supposed to be about, but the emotional heft those songs contain is present for anyone to glean through Bejar’s voice on record and, equally so, his posture as a leading man on stage.
With the release of Kaputt in 2011 this performative equation reached its apotheosis. Bejar went into full-blown Roxy-Music-circa-Avalon mode, crafting a collection of soft-rock synth-pop songs sung from the armchair of a wizened old man reflecting on the excesses of the culture around him. The record tells a starry-eyed tale from the perspective of a character who is as trapped within the sensory hailstorm of modern culture as he is in love with it. “I was starving in that shit house, the world” Destroyer once sang on My Favorite Year from Trouble in Dreams. Three years later, on Kaputt, the world on view wears a mask of refined luxury and manicured opulence, inflected with just a perfect dose of theatrical melodrama that is all too alluring to pull away from.
Kaputt solidified Destroyer’s status as one of the preeminent indie darlings of the 21st century. The renown it has garnered since its release has seen the band’s stature balloon to such a degree that it almost works to the bands’ detriment - the magnitude of their one album blotting out an illustrious career that extends well back into the mid-90s. No one unifying thread unites this career. Every new release is defined by its distinctiveness from the previous one; each record is so of-its-own-world that it’s almost better to consider the latest release as the product of a band reborn, baptized in the manic melodies and ideas of their former selves.
On ken, released on October 20th via Merge, Bejar sounds awash in the same theatricality of his post-Kaputt persona, yet altogether somewhat less cohesive, operating in an array of styles throughout a relatively brisk 40 minute run time. “Come one, come all, young revolutionary capitalists!” he croons on opening track and lead single Sky is Grey. It’s the sort of supremely smug Bejar-ian sentiment that spontaneously arises and makes little sense within the narrative that the track sets out with, but captures perfectly an emotional aura, one that upends the stable narrative ideas that whisper through the track. Bejar sings of a young actor up against an unsympathetic world who is beginning to find joy in their craft, never mind the world’s relentless hostility. In typical Destroyer fashion, the lyrics are veiled with cryptic references and turns-of-phrase that gradually erode the story at hand. What emerges by the end is not a straightforward tale of self-perseverance familiar to the music of Bejar’s folk predecessors, but it embodies the emotional product such a tale contains as it exists outside of the narrative. The song ultimately becomes about another day at the millstone - an oppressively grey one, to boot - when the endless drudgery of laboring for yourself has transformed into a private pleasure that is yours alone, and in that moment of self-awareness the spiritual burden of an overcast sky suddenly becomes ecstatic.
ken is the eleventh Destroyer record and the first to be produced by band member Josh Wells. In an interview with Aquarium Drunkard, Bejar explained how the songs he wrote for the album changed drastically once he began recording them with Wells. Bejar wanted to tap into the music of his youth, the Thatcher-era UK indie bands of the late 80s, and Wells brought with him a particular expertise of this era which led them to rebuild the demos from the ground up before committing them to record. By the time the band members entered the studio, Wells and Bejar’s thorough understanding of the songs led to a much more tightly directed recording experience than has been the case with previous records. In Bejar’s words, the change in approach to recording resulted in “the most goth record that Destroyer has ever made”.
Goth is definitely one way to describe the sound of the album. But, as is the case with every Destroyer release, the more immediate sonic reference would be Bejar himself. The particular brilliance of a Destroyer record stems from this sort of critical tautology (a Destroyer record sounds like a Destroyer record!) and it’s this near-indescribable, idiosyncratic quality of Bejar’s songwriting that makes him one of the greatest to emerge out of the past twenty or so years.
In the Morning, the album’s second track, is the most direct example of Bejar’s goth-rock intent. The song is replete with thick, Bauhaus-esque guitar chords, a searing, fist-in-your-face lead guitar line, and synths that sound like something out of a New Order song. Lyrics such as, “A death star in bloom/Another thought in the incinerator” and, “Birds sing their songs and then disappear” inspire an earnest image of Bejar as a legitimate inheritor of the goth rock legacy that formed his musical disposition. And later, on Cover from the Sun, Bejar pays direct tribute to The Smiths, nodding at his indebtedness to the group’s body of work. If you strip away Bejar’s vocal track, it could almost be mistaken for a Johnny Marr composition. Bejar sings, “Nancy takes a bow/Sheila takes Manhattan”, riffing on Bejar’s character of Nancy from his monumental 2009 track Bay of Pigs and The Smith’s song Sheila Take a Bow, dismissing his own character, substituting her with his idols’, and placing the latter in Manhattan, a city that in many ways cuts right to the heart of Bejar’s thematic preoccupations throughout his songwriting.
For all of the record’s individual strengths, there is something about it that doesn’t fully cohere by the end. Tinseltown Swimming in Blood, Sky is Grey, and even the album closer, La Regle du Jeu, which features Bejar repeating the name of the eponymous 1939 Jean Renoir film repeatedly for the duration of the chorus, rank among some of the best work he’s put out in the post-Kaputt era. Perhaps it’s the earnestness with which Bejar approaches the music of his youth that lightens the usual force of Bejar’s melodic and lyrical idiosyncrasies. Still, despite sounding slightly toned down this time around, ken, as a whole is filled with reminders of why, for over twenty years, he’s been among the most captivating songwriters around.
Words: Andrew Ward