Dissonant Notes

Monday, February 14, 2011

New Ways of Living: Destroyer's Leap From Pointlessness To Professionalism

        If his songs are anything to go by, Dan Bejar is a fallen Lord who lives in a castle which has seen better days. The castle walls are strewn with testaments to past glories: aging military trophies and rusted coats of arms. His empire is in decline and has been for a good while now. Yet there sits Bejar, proudly toasting a chalice of wine to himself in an empty dining hall, as the fire crackles down to its last embers. He is pop culture's very own King Lear, or better still Emperor Nero, fiddling about while Rome burns. Overwhelmed by the artistic triumphs and significance of pop music in the many decades previous to his own, he nevertheless allows himself a wry chuckle, unsure as to whether his opinion of the current pop scene is a valid one or whether he's just another casualty of the emotional engagement he accorded to music in his younger days. He is the victim of a witch's curse, forever doomed to seek approval from a culture he confers no value to. He's listened to too much Dylan but, like all good Dylan fans, he both loves and hates him, forever struggling with the Oedipal urge to plunge a knife into his heart for all his artistic pratfalls, while also remaining slack-jawed in admiration at his many musical accomplishments. And therein lies the tension at the heart of Dan Bejar's songwriting: how do you balance reverence for your art, knowing full well that notions like "art" and "reverence" contain their very own brand of bullshit, while also knowing that no reverence for your art leaves you open to the worst kind of musical missteps or even denials as to your art's basic worth (outside of monetary worth and entertainment value)? It can be a difficult line to walk. How does one grow and change musically while still staying true to whatever values one professes to have? Enter "Kaputt", the new album by Destroyer.

      Kaputt means broken, or even destroyed. In the run up to the album's release, Bejar released a list of things he deemed relevant to its creation. Two of those things were "the hopelessness of the future of music" and "the pointlessness of writing songs for today". We can use these statements as clues to unravel the secret of Destroyer's supposedly strange new musical turn. And what is this strange new musical turn? On "Kaputt", Bejar has embraced a languid, lite-jazz approach. Much has been made of the influence of late-period Roxy Music, but the songs, at least structure-wise, seem mostly to be in the Destroyer tradition. The occasional New Order influence seeps through, as does the random appearance of a bass-line that could have been lifted from "Lovely Day" by Bill Withers, and the ambiance of Eno is a presence but, other than that, no particular musical influence leaps out. What seems more apparent is that Bejar has become disenchanted with the "indie" approach and has attempted to provide his songs with, of all things, a professional sheen. Bejar's singing is more controlled, more nuanced, somehow less jarring. Saxophones murmur sadly in the background, as if the studio were being haunted by the ghost of David Sanborn (Yes, I know David Sanborn isn't dead. Who's writing this review anyway, me or you?). Female vocalists chime in, though this being Destroyer they get to sing things like "Animals crawl towards death's embrace". So what have these facts to do with the hopelessness and pointlessness mentioned above? I view Bejar's professionalism to be a reaction to the feeling of hopelessness. This is no lunge at mainstream acceptance a la "Terror Twilight" or "Do The Collapse" and as such is not the colossal failure that both of those records were."Kaputt" seems more like a refinement but also a shifting of priorities. Knowing that it is foolish to attempt to alter one's songwriting in an attempt to receive some sales-based validation, Bejar has instead looked to an increased sense of musicianship and sonic sophistication to chase away the demons of despondency. All of this being the case, one important question remains to be asked. Does it work?

        I can answer that question with a resounding yes. Granted I don't think Destroyer are capable of releasing a bad album, but this one is already vying for a place in my top three. Bejar, as it seems was his intent, has turned his hopelessness into a defiant romanticism. The songs may be peppered with enough inscrutably enigmatic females to merit some Cohen comparisons, but Bejar is no beautiful loser. He's too caustic and knowing for that label. That said, his lyrics, while losing nothing of their brilliance, have more of an approachable, less impenetrable feel. This is Destroyer, though, so that still means you won't really have a clue what's going on at any particular time. It's just that, when he sings "Sounds, Smash Hits, Melody Maker, NME, all sound like a dream to me" on the title track, you feel like Bejar is allowing sentiment into his songs like never before yet not in some trite, unrefined way. Those British music magazines probably looked exotic to the young Bejar and talked of a world that would have seemed all but unreachable. The album opens with "Chinatown" and Bejar is too much of a culture junky for it not be an allusion to Polanski's neo-noir masterpiece. His purpose is not to invoke the actual movie as some pointless pop-culture reference but more to invoke the movie's dark undercurrent. "I can't walk away, you can't walk away" is the song's main refrain, and these lyrics do a good job of summing up the thread of trapped romanticism that runs through the entire album. In order to create romance and excitement in his life, Bejar has cast himself as the star in his very own film-noir creation and called it "Kaputt". "Savage Night at the Opera" glides along like some out-take from "Another Green World" played by New Order (Yes, I know New Order didn't exist when "Another Green World" came out. Just indulge me while I play the music reviewer association game. At least I didn't say that it sounds like Eno meets New Order on downers, which I could have). "Suicide Demo for Kara Walker", with cut-up lyrics provided by visual artist Kara Walker, comes off as some mournful exploration of the state of the Union. Suddenly America itself is trapped, unable to escape from its past, from its broken promises. "Words, words, words...Longings, longings, longings..All in vain". All in vain, but still he endures. I told you Bejar was a romantic.

    "Kaputt" closes with "Bay of Pigs (detail)" and, at over eleven minutes long, it is the album's most ambitious piece of work. The influence of Eno is apparent in the first four-and-a-half minutes as the song slowly unfolds in waves of electronic noise. Then suddenly it becomes almost a dance song, only to transform itself again within a few minutes into a frenetic acoustic strum. It all holds together brilliantly, as Bejar's lyrics weave their typical poetic spell. It's a triumphant end to an altogether brilliant album, an album that has seen Destroyer move up a notch in the hearts of North America's indie fraternity. Always respected but always on the sidelines, Destroyer's current '80's vibe has found a home at Pitchfork. The reason why '80's music is still revered at Pitchfork and elsewhere would take too long to explain but, boiled down to its essentials, the '80's remain a benchmark for "cool" because: a) the indie ironic persona devours bad taste, and the 1980's excelled at bad taste; b) '80's music is still embraced as a rebellion against '60's and '70's music and any criticism of the '80's is assumed to be from a '60's classicist point of view; and c) no great musical event has occurred to help draw the line between '80's music and what came after in the way punk did with '60's music. So Destroyer's lite-jazz approach will be seen by many as a brilliant conceptual coup, one more ironic indie embrace of a previously discredited musical genre. As far as I can see, nothing could be further from the truth. Bejar appears to have been listening to "Avalon" era Roxy Music and Brian Eno and decided to create something along similar lines. In other words his new musical direction seems completely sincere. The only irony then is that this new approach has won him so much critical approval from indie taste-makers. Bejar's lyrics are typically filled with so many barbed critiques of the music industry (though not so much on "Kaputt") that it's hard to imagine what kind of payoff Bejar wants from any particular album release. Is approval from an industry that you despise a good thing? Make no mistake, Pitchfork are one of the most powerful forces in the music industry right now, capable of turning a band with little to no fans into big venue headliners in a matter of weeks, then sending them right back again when they're done (witness Tapes 'n Tapes). What represents success in such an environment? No wonder Bejar feels hopeless. Yet he perseveres and even finds romance in his struggle. He is that rare beast in these times, a true artist. One who also knows how much bullshit is attached to terms like "true artist". And what does an artist do in tough times? Creates. "Kaputt" is a dark city with no easy escape routes. Washed-out horns blow sorrowfully into the night. In a bar in Chinatown, with broken neon buzzing from its "Open" sign, sits a kind-hearted but cynical survivor. If you buy him a shot he'll tell you some cryptic stories of how things work around these parts. His name is Dan Bejar. Pull up a chair, kid. You're in for a long, entertaining night.

2 comments:

  1. I agree with you in all the Pitchfork criticism and how Bejar attempts to distance himself from/maintain disinterest in that culture.

    With the possible exception of his contributions to the New Pornographers, Bejar has always been one to follow his muse, regardless of whether the end product is palatable to his fans, or anyone else for that matter. When he's on, I'm enraptured and amazed. Moreso than any other artist I can think of, I'm willing to ignore the songs and albums I don't care for (Swan Lake/"Your Blues"/Hello, Blue Roses/etc.). I feel like Kaputt is keeping Bejar on the wane for me, and while I'm not hanging on for another Streethawk or Rubies, I'll stick around for the ride.

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  2. PS - I love Terror Twilight, even if it was a desperate grasp at commercial relevance.

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