The immediate surprise of Kaputt, the new album from Dan Bejar’s Destroyer, is the outré instrumentation of quiet storm and early 80s soft rock. There are pillowy synthesizers, mellow and decidedly un-rock and roll saxophones, thick, unfretted bass and not much guitar. But if you can embrace and enjoy Destroyer’s new sound – which is a rich and pretty great one – you’ll find that Kaputt is the musical equivalent of an artist who begins painting with an entirely new palette and in the process creating his masterpiece. Like Bowie on Young Americans, Bejar has radically reinvented himself while retaining something essential and distinctive in his sound. The results are intoxicating.
Album opener ‘Chinatown’ sets the mood at the top. Bejar’s lyrics are typically cryptic and evocative but here he sings them with a new languor that suggests a man who has been through everything and looks back now without judgement. Gone is the excited rush to cram each line with as many words as will fit, and in its place is an approach that is languid, more relaxed than weary. Bejar’s voice is echoed prettily by Sibel Thrasher’s (Thrasher’s voice plays a key role throughout the album). The snap of a snare drum and a wonderfully round and propulsive bass-line keeps the song from falling into inertia – almost making it danceable. ‘Chinatown’ doesn’t seem to have any fixed meaning, but it offers a sort of warm and enveloping melancholy. Maybe it’s nostalgia but Bejar seems a little too wise for that. And so it goes throughout Kaputt, whether on the sweet lover’s caution of ‘Blue Eyes’ or the disco sounds that build from ambient Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-style ambient noise on ‘Suicide Demo for Kara Walker.’ There isn’t a bad song on the album, so the moments that stand out do so because they’re different, as on the sharper, more new wavey ‘Savage Night at the Opera’ and the disco groove turned discord of ‘Song for America.’ Or because they’re simply exceptionally beautiful, as on ‘Kaputt,’ with its gorgeous saxophone and warm, fluid bass. The only song that doesn’t fit perfectly is album closer ‘Bay of Pigs,’ which was originally released in 2009 and feels a bit like the missing link between the rest of Destroyer’s work and Kaputt. It’s an awesome song, almost 12 minutes long, and with several distinct parts that quickly turn to the next, and Bejar sounds more excitable than anywhere else on the album. Late in the song when Bejar gently chants, “I’ve seen it all,” it feels like an encapsulation of the worldview presented on Kaputt.
Kaputt is the rare late-career change that works on all levels. It frames the charms of Bejar’s unusual voice and songwriting in a beautiful new way. It’s an ambitious album that gets better and better with repeated listens. And its sound, which at first may come across as shockingly bland, reveals itself as a bold and absolutely fitting creative choice. There’s no other album that sounds like Kaputt in 2011 and there may not be a better one either.