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.