Dan Bejar has always been the type of artist to defy expectations and, like some of the all-time greats, Bejar approaches every new project like a magician unveiling a new illusion. At the best of times, this can mean an anxious wait for Destroyer’s loyal fan-base, wringing their hands while they try and guess whether the forthcoming record will feature heavy rock, folky pop or something else altogether. And the lead-up to Kaputt, the ninth full-length Destroyer offering, might just have been the most nerve-wracking of all. Just prior to the announcement of the album, Bejar put out Archer On The Beach, a pair of noise-concrete collaborations with ambient sound artists Tim Hecker and Scott “Loscil” Morgan; the track, “Grief Point”, read like a (career) suicide note, with Bejar, referring to the poor critical reception of 2008’s Trouble In Dreams and internal creative conflicts, sighing defeatedly, “I have lost interest in music. It is horrible. I should only make things I understand.” With the forecast looking decidedly grey, the faithful could be forgiven for expressing doubts. Would the forthcoming album carry on down this same path of lyrical doom and gloom? Would it all be as icily synthetic? Was the title a not-so-subtle clue to a planned goodbye?
First single “Chinatown” should assuage worries considerably, confirming that Bejar has not abandoned traditional song structure after all with a steady drum-beat, lazily strummed guitar and some shimmering keyboard motifs present from the off. Also returning is Bejar’s vague but evocative poetry: “The wind and the rain/ To your detriment you tried to explain/ A government swallowed up in the squall/ I can’t walk away”. But it’s the overall aesthetic of the song – and of the album as a whole – that really sheds light on Bejar’s current state of mind. Ditching the guitar-heavy “European Blues” style of career highpoints like Streethawk and Rubies for a smooth 80s AOR style, incorporating jazz-funk horns, slinky 4/4 rhythms and female backing vocals, Kaputt also nods at the cosmic disco of Studio and Lindstrom. But don’t be under the impression that this is a Destroyer chillwave record. As ever, this is Bejar effortlessly and unapologetically making the record he wants to. But here he forsakes the usual cool reference points (Bowie, Pavement etc) for less hip pleasures like Prefab Sprout and Steely Dan. It’s a risky move, and one that will no doubt divide opinion among fans, but this laid-back and reluctantly upbeat record is the closest thing to a pure pop album Bejar has produced over a fifteen year-plus career.
Kaputt‘s burbling synths and slack dance beats might not come as a huge surprise to those familiar with the Bay Of Pigs EP/single released in 2009 (in itself an extension of the electronic arrangements Bejar had explored previously with the MIDI-heavy Your Blues, that 15-minute disco odyssey appears in slightly edited form here as the album closer), but nothing can prepare listeners for the sheer WTF shock of hearing a diva on a Destroyer record, and Vancouver-based gospel/ jazz/ Broadway singer Sibel Thrasher is all over Kaputt, backing up the chorus refrains like DC Lee to Bejar’s Style Council-era Paul Weller. Thrasher’s rich, soulful voice acts as the perfect counterpoint to Bejar’s nasal tone, adding emphasis and emotional pull to his trademark repetitive hooks; as a duet, lines like “Blue Eyes”’ “I won’t and I never will” are opened up to wider interpretation, becoming part of a conversation or an argument between strangers or lovers. Another surprising addition comes courtesy of JP Carter and Joseph Shabason, whose liberal brass and woodwind contributions plays a major part in the album’s overall sound, as does the sleek production of Bejar’s regular studio team, John Collins and David Carswell. Although it shares a certain amount of common ground with the sound collages of solo electronic artists like Four Tet and Caribou – Kaputt’s sleeve notes credit a total of eight players, making it the most collaborative Destroyer album to date – it’s easy to imagine Bejar taking on a Brian Wilson-style “musical director” role during recording. I certainly doubt we’ll be seeing Bejar touring this album with just an acoustic guitar.
Whatever the means of its creation, Kaputt is simply a great album. Ironically, despite being far and away the most “mainstream” record Bejar has ever produced, it takes a few listens for all its subtle nuances to emerge; repeat visits draw attention to just how well-constructed these songs are, and to the importance of small details like Nicolas Bragg’s funk guitar licks and the gently insistent trumpet haze that add shade to the frequent instrumental breaks. That said, the album has its share of immediate moments: the propulsive “Savage Night At The Opera”, with its Peter Hook bass-line and “Enola Gay”-cribbing guitar outro, is a sure-fire indie disco floor-filler, whilst the lush, pulsing “Poor In Love” swells like LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends” without ever reaching a climax. “Suicide Demo For Kara Walker”, meanwhile, could well be the finest song in the Destroyer canon, moving from a folky, flute-led intro to a lazy cosmic disco workout complete with Balearic bleeps and a dubbed-out free-jazz finale. Throughout, Bejar rambles and rants like a melancholy drunk, and when Thrasher joins in for the final chorus it’s positively ecstatic.
Kaputt is far from a typical Destroyer album, but, then again, has there ever really been such a thing? While there are no obvious references to his own back-catalogue in Bejar’s lyrics here, and very little of his trademark scat-singing, it would be impossible to mistake it for the work of anybody else. Who else could dream up such a beautiful verse as “I was just getting used/ To having you ‘round/ You went wandering/ Around the world/ I woke up, I went downtown/ I woke up and everything was drowning” and then dump another as abstract as “Oh Eva, your face/ I was a four leaf clover/ I was Red Rover on his way over to your place” into the same song? Dan Bejar has always been a master of combining the sublime and the ridiculous, and Kaputt is no exception. Whether the whole slick jazz-funk concept is a genuine labour of love or some elaborate, ironic joke remains unclear; it certainly feels like the former, but trying to get inside Bejar’s head is as pointless as it is impossible. If, as the artist himself has recently hinted, Kaputt really does mark the end of Destroyer, then it succeeds as a triumphant swan-song. If that claim proves to be just another ruse, it simply stands as one of the first truly great albums of 2011.