Destroyer Kaputt

[Merge; 2011]

Styles: New Wave, disco, smooth and acid jazz, ambient, soul and funk
Others: Sibel Thrasher, Kara Walker

Destroyer’s new album Kaputt may be one of the most indefensible albums of all time. But it’s also a masterpiece. Shrugging off the rich cultural cache he has established for himself through nine excellent albums of “European blues,” Daniel Bejar here indulges in some of the most poorly regarded pop genres of all time: smooth jazz, new age ambient, easy listening, and white disco. Think Kenny G meets Style Council. The album is full of sleazy sax riffs, plunky electronic keyboards, acid-jazz breakdowns, and empty washes of synth. Musically, it seems to emerge from some late-night hotel dance lounge in decline, where men pretend to chase women in order to chase cocaine, and women disappear into back rooms in order to disappear forever. And yet, through all this, the album is full of both beauty and intelligence. Bejar fully immerses himself in the sonic aesthetics of the 1980s to create a seamless dream vision of an America that could have — and perhaps should have — never been. He convinces you that you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, that this abandoned moment, in all its decadence, holds the key. As he sings on the title track, “Sounds, Smash Hits, Melody Maker, NME, 
all sounds like a dream to me.” In true Destroyer fashion, Bejar’s got all his references in a row, and no matter how superficial and cheap, they come together here as one gorgeous vision of pop grace.

Bejar’s music has a way of getting at the junk in your head that you don’t even know is in there. He makes sounds that refer back to other sounds, lost sounds, all that pop detritus that you learned as a teen, affectively-charged bits of sonic data — solos, licks, drum-kicks — that still float around in the cultural ether. Listeners are always getting caught up in what his songs mean — what they refer to — as if music is a code that can be translated into another code. But this misses the point entirely. In interviews, Bejar resists the “ideas of words meaning something as opposed to doing something. As opposed to the effects they create.” To me, his songs have musical, rather than symbolic or literary, meaning; each tone, solo, lyric has significance in its relation to other pop moments, as part of a dynamic musical system. The very first clear note of Kaputt drove me crazy — a bright, high-pitched ding. I know I’ve heard it before — what the hell is it from? Roxy Music? INXS? Simply Red? But then the whole album sets off literally hundreds of emotional associations: New Order, Talk Talk, Tangerine Dream, Miles Davis, Petula Clark, Ryuichi Sakamoto, etc. Listening to Kaputt opens up a vast terrain of personal/public references and totally messes with your sense of space and time. It sends you right back to the iPod of the soul, setting off dreams and memories, reviving experiences real and imagined and making them matter all over again.

Kaputt seems intent on exploring this vague pop world as it doubles over the real world. The album has a dark sense of urgency about it, but each track is delivered in an easy, drifting style, as if nothing is at stake and everything can be left behind. Bejar might be, after all, just indulging in his tastes, and he reportedly recorded the lyrics while lying on a couch. The album opens with “Chinatown,” a hazy tale of crime and conspiracy with a slinky synth line and an insinuating sax solo straight. It’s all cinematic cliché; we’ve seen it a hundred times before, which is what Bejar seems to suggest when he sings, “I know you and I know the score.” At the same time, though, this emptiness is seductive. This is a scene that’s as easy to leave as it is hard to resist. The song ends with a delirious set of overlapping alternatives, Bejar singing, backed by Sibel Thrasher’s gorgeous soul soprano, “I can’t walk away, you can walk away/ I can walk away, you can’t walk away.” In fact, if nothing on the album is anything more than style, it can all — like Bejar’s own reputation — go kaput in a moment’s notice. Genres are picked up and dropped at will; characters disappear without warning. Everything fades away in a blissful wash of pastel sound. In “Song For America,” perhaps the breeziest number in the collection, we hear that “Jessica’s gone on vacation on the dark side of town forever,” but the situation’s brushed off with a simple, “who knew?” “Winter, spring summer, and fall/ Animals crawl towards death’s embrace” — it doesn’t seem to matter, though, when you’re “in a park, on a Sunday, strung out in the rain.”

Indeed, if this is Bejar’s album for America, it’s a pure fabrication drawn from pop culture fantasies of club life and the ecstasy of the dance floor. All the threat and thrill of this imagined country lie in the proper dance mix, at an after-hours party of the decadent mind. “Savage Night at the Opera” opens up in Pet Shop Boys territory, but it borrows its New Wave moves from a bunch of bands, including New Order, The Cure, and Depeche Mode. As Bejar sings about losing yourself in the club — where “old souls are born to die” — he builds his own club hit, light and luscious, dissolving all pain and embarrassment in the process. He sings of a “horse abandoned midstream” and a “life abandoned midstream” on the dance floor, but then he actually gives you that moment. He gently sets the scene — “Quatrain etched on a turnstile/ Just set the loop and then go wild” — and then, after a pause, launches into one of the most deliriously empty guitar solos ever recorded since, say, 1986. It’s perhaps the silliest moment on the album, nothing serious or aggressive about it, but it magically indicts and celebrates an entire generation.

But that’s nothing. Check out “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker,” a collaboration between Bejar and Walker initiated by the latter. The song begins with Spanish guitar, morphs into some beautiful ambient noise, takes a moment for a little easy jazz flute, and then launches into a trippy disco track about racial identity in America. It’s genius from start to finish. A visual artist, Walker uses paper cutouts to create surreal scenes of racial and sexual violence in the South. Her installations are, like Bejar’s music, both unbearably powerful and unnervingly slight; each silhouette opens into a powerful darkness, but remains, after all, only a two-dimensional image projected onto a wall. Bejar’s song, in turn, suggests that our heads are full of racial imagery and agendas — “southern sisters,” a “harmless little negress,” “four pillars Yankee-style,” a “southern bunkhouse” — it’s all damning stuff, and yet nothing but phantoms. The song — like “all proud Americans” — seems both burdened by and immune to the past. “400 years of this shit, fuck it,” Bejar sings. “It’s not you/ It’s nothing personal/ No hard feelings/ Nothing’s there.” Indeed, if this past is only imagined, “we can sculpturize the air for free.” But, again, the music drives home the point here, for the song is full of light soul and funk touches that melt this entire tragic history into a single fluid current of danceable sound.

To me, though, it all comes down to the specific musical vibes of the 1980s, and Bejar (who was born in 1972) turns to this decade not on a whim, but as a genuinely personal form of expression. I recently downloaded a copy of Echo and the Bunnymen’s Songs to Learn and Sing, and after revisiting tracks such as “A Promise ” and “The Cutter,” I found myself wondering just what kind of effect this music must have had on kids, like Bejar and me, who grew up on it. It’s all so overwhelmingly earnest about its own humanity and yet so spazzy and superficial; the experience was beautiful, sad, annoying, and unbearable. Bejar taps this very mode when, on “Poor in Love,” he sings, “Why does everybody sing alone/ When we built this city on ruins?” That brutal sentiment, layered with just a very slight irony (and a little bit of Starship), seemed to become possible only in the music of the early 1980s (there’s nothing quite like it in punk or glam or rock or soul), and it beautifully captures all the dumb and easy hope of that silly decade. In this, Kaputt is a rare work of historical interpretation and pop artistry, full of beauty and wonder. It tops Streethawk: A Seduction as my favorite Destroyer album, and, even this early in the game, I know it will be a contender for my favorite album of the year. It doesn’t matter whether it reflects your tastes or not. It’s not about you. It’s not something to use, but, rather, something to think about, with your mind and your soul — and maybe you’ll even dance a little.

Links: Destroyer - Merge

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