Included in the press material announcing Kaputt, the ninth album from Dan Bejar’s Destroyer project, was a list of “some of the themes alluded to or avoided in the album.” Elliptical and random, in the manner of something scribbled at 2 a.m. on a cocktail napkin, the paragraph namedrops the Bowie/Oshima flick Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, Roxy Music LPs Avalon and Boys and Girls, African-American silhouette artist Kara Walker, strangely capitalized concepts “The Cocaine Addicts” and “American Communism,” and another dozen or so references and half-thoughts. The list is a reminder of how grating Bejar’s personality might be if he didn’t have such a wicked sense of humor or a knack for crafting indie-rock melodies. Every move he makes seems like another dare, a further attempt to see how far he can take his swooning, word-drunk persona before falling into the abyss of pretentious po-mo bullshit.
But Bejar is not even close to reaching the edge of said abyss. Kaputt is a self-described “disco” album, awash with smoky synthesizers, pungent horn solos, misty-eyed backup singers, and strutting bass lines straight out of a Bee Gees record. The dance-music experiment may provide a classic set-up for disaster, but somehow, and maybe not surprisingly at this point, Destroyer pulls the thing off. Of course, no one should expect Kaputt to be getting spins in clubs any time soon, but nor does the album reek of dilettantism or of parody. More important, Kaputt proves that when it comes to Destroyer, the clothes don’t make the man. Whatever the musical drapery Bejar covers himself in, the brand remains in tact.
The main reason that Bejar slides so comfortably into the white-blazered New Wave of Kaputt is that he hasn’t forgotten Destroyer’s best attributes. His lyrics are still about women, art, and being drunk, and include jokes of both the inside and the self-deprecating variety. He’s singing with more spirit in order to match the smooth lines of the arrangements, but he hasn’t lost the characteristic sneer, the sense that there’s a joker’s grin waiting at the end of every line. The presence of Nicholas Bragg’s piercing guitar work, a fixture of Destroyer records since 2006, adds to the continuity. “Sha-la-las,” and other favorite Bejar ad-libs, abound. Even the riff to “Chinatown” seems jacked from Destroyer’s own “Painter in Your Pocket.”
Compared with the records from the era Bejar is trying to capture, which are often fueled on the cagey intensity typical to a fist fight at an all boys’ prep school, Kaputt is spacious, relaxed, and comfortable with its feminine side. No chorus is hurried into existence. There’s always room for a sax solo or another minute of bassline reflection. The payoff of “Blue Eyes,” for example, is well earned. The song begins with an introductory verse resting on a single synth line, gains a back-up singer, then adds a low end and echoing trumpet. By the time the refrain arrives — “Blue eyes/ Ooh baby/ You’ve got those blue eyes” — accompanied by a prancing guitar riff, the song fully blooms. “Downtown” works on a similar effect, hinging on the listener’s anticipation of the title: “I woke up and everything was drowning” — pause — “Downtown!”
Bejar’s a great rock lyricist not because his lyrics translated to paper look like poetry, but because when he’s singing them, you’re convinced his lyrics are poetry. For this reason and others, Kaputt’s title track and centerpiece is one of Destroyer’s greatest compositions to date. The first lines of the song announce that the song’s narcotic, nocturnal nature: “Wasting the days/ Chasing some girls, alright, chasing cocaine/ Through the back rooms of the world all night.” What follows is pure liftoff, as the song soars dreamlike on a ship of sunlit guitars, keyboard twinkles, and an irresistible groove. To leave the world of the song and try to figure out what exactly is meant by “Step out of your toga/ And into the fog/ You a prince on the ocean/ In a pit in a sky in your eyes” would be to miss the point entirely.
The song that most challenges the ban against analysis is “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker.” Bejar co-wrote this one with Kara Walker, an artist who specializes in silhouetted depictions of the African-American experience. Walker initially sent Bejar lyrics on cue cards. He ordered Walker’s words, added his own flourishes, and set it to music. What results is a moody, majestic song that has passages of both oceanic ambience and jovial dancing, Bejar-esque couplets like “Fool child you’re never going to make it/ New York City just wants to see you naked” and more troubling ruminations like “Harmless little Negress / You’ve got to say yes to another excess” that must have come from Walker. Kind of like the whole idea of a disco album, a collaboration with a visual artist about African-Americans’ tragic history is something you would never expect from Destroyer, and yet once you listen, it seems perfectly authentic, inspired, and essential.