Destroyer: Kaputt

Though Kaputt once again proves Bejar an adroit musical chameleon, there's a glass ceiling to this soft-rock sound.



US Release: 2011-01-25
Label: Merge
UK Release: import
Label Website

In recent years, I've forgiven some albums released in the '80s. Stuff like Bob Dylan's Infidels or Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. have earned a pass because they are good in spite of the tinny, hollow production of their time. That was what super-produced music sounded like then, for better or worse. But recording and producing has come a long way since then, so tinny, hollow production is now a choice, not an unavoidable pitfall.

So it's perplexing that Destroyer's ninth album, Kaputt, is steeped in exactly that kind of sound. This sort of anachronism isn't new to main man Dan Bejar -- remember the midi-pop excesses of Your Blues? -- but in this incarnation it may be his most questionable shift yet. After the ambient leanings of his last two 12-inch singles -- Bay of Pigs and Archer on the Beach -- Bejar has taken that same atmosphere and applied it to more structured pop songs. The results are hardly bad, but these songs often confound and confuse. Where Bejar used to perplex us lyrically, though, now it’s a musical confusion that we have to work through on Kaputt.

At its base, this is a soft-rock album, right down to the quasi-smoky sax fills and airy drumming. The space of "Blue Eyes" is punctuated by an oddly effective funk-lite guitar riff, and female backing vocals offer a tuneful counterpoint to Bejar's hushed speak-singing. "Savage Night at the Opera" rests on a simple drum-machine beat and whirling synthesizers, as Bejar bays dismissively into space, "I heard the record, it's all right." As always, Bejar plays the keen observer, and the distance he often puts between speaker and subject is reflected well in the chilly, mechanical feel of these songs.

Still, the album gets much more interesting when we see Bejar step out of his comfort zone. "Suicide Demo for Kara Walker" is perhaps the most compelling offering here. Bejar co-wrote the song with visual artist Kara Walker, and it was originally included in a compilation Walker curated as part of Merge's Score! 20-year-anniversary celebration. In that disc's liner notes, Walker claims the song is "…the plaintive wailings of a black girl caught up in the question of just who made these Negro rules, histories, narratives, phrases…" Together with Bejar, Walker uses impressionist images to complicate ideas of race rather than clarify them. The song drifts through references to Invisible Man and a "harmless little negress", painting a picture of a cold world self-satisfied with the problems it thinks it has solved. "All of America lives to light his pipe at night," Bejar half-whispers, "to which Dixie responds 'free'." It's a haunting song about "what passes for love these days", and a welcome shift away from the usually wry, self-referential lyrics Bejar normally brings us.

That's not to say, of course, he doesn't have his usual sharp eye for wit and references. "I wrote a song for America, they told me it was clever," he sneers on "Song for America", which once again gets us wondering if he has something against pop music, even as he makes references to stuff like Starship's "We Built this City". But these clever paradoxes are things we're used to from Bejar, and they fit fine over this new musical palate. The true surprise on this record, though, is his subtle vocal performance. He rarely snaps into his nasal bleat here, preferring instead to quiet his voice down to subtler tones. The effect is arresting, as he lures us in rather than pushing us back. It also leads to album standout "Poor in Love", which may be the most heartfelt, deeply emotional song in his extensive catalog. As he quietly repeats "I was poor in love" at the song's start, his voice wobbles and cracks ever so slightly, and all of a sudden the guy who's song always go for the head has taken dead aim for the heart and hit it.

Still, though Kaputt once again proves Bejar an adroit musical chameleon, there's a glass ceiling to this sound. The soft-rock, hollow excess of it would be much easier to take if there was any emphasis at all put on the rhythm section. The space and shuffle of these songs leaves room for thumping bass lines that never come, and the drums seem far-off and thin throughout the whole record. The result is an album that feels stuck in a valley between pop structures and ambient atmosphere. "Bay of Pigs", included as the close here, is an impressive 11-minutes because it builds slowly, establishing a space that can't be broken, so when the simple drums come in, finally, they prop the song up instead of thinning it out. The other songs sometimes struggle to find that careful balance.

On "Grief Point", the b-side to Archer on the Beach, Bejar mumbles, "I have lost interest in music / It is horrible." Now, of course, we don't really believe him. The attention to detail is here and the melodies -- even as he wanders all over them -- are too well-built to be created out of ambivalence. But before those two 12-inches, Bejar's records had settled into a basic rock-band set-up. Even though the songs often took on a prog-heft, Destroyer was a rock band for a time. That music seems to be what he has tired of, but it is this latest left turn in his sound that, for all its space, feels limited. When Destroyer was a rock band -- that was when Bejar seemed to have the most possibilities to explore. Kaputt is eccentric and enjoyable, but it's no Infidels, which is to say it never quite breaks through its sonic limitations.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.