Merge Records releases Kaputt Tuesday, Jan. 25. Destroyer plays locally Thursday, April 7, with The War on Drugs at Cat’s Cradle. Tickets are on sale now.
With retrospectively quaint optionsthe radio, friends, magazinesfor finding out about music divorced from the mainstream, dissatisfied ’90s kids were given the gift of a culture run on strange, dark matter. The radio provided loud, super-punk, Steve Albini-captured guitar blasts and mordant, abstract wit. We liked it.
But as out-of-print treasures became available at a keystroke by the beginning of the last decade, flocks of upstart musicians and their bands gorged on obscure post-punk, reinterpreting forgotten but unassailably cool sounds for a digital era. Soon came a near-total revival of once-maligned disco as a hip genrefirst through safely cool mutated “punk-disco,” but in purer form soon after. Cycles burn quicker all the time, and dodgier inspirations were soon mined.
“A voice coach taught me to sing, he couldn’t teach me to love,” Stephen Malkmus once sang, joking. The Alpha Slacker, practicing his vocal scales? Ha. But recent notables like The Dirty Projectors and How to Dress Well spur reconsideration of the showy, melismatic Mariah Carey style that used to draw sarcastic quips from the cool kids. Hitting a basement show by the triumphant face of Weird 2010, Ariel Pink, out-of-the-loop types might have been shocked to find earnest AM gold. Once exiled to faded supermarket PA systems, mosh pits of kids now greet it. In 20 years time, the magnetic poles of indie’s “cool” have reversed. These days, there’s almost no influence, or specific instrumental element, that is itself grounds for dismissal from the underground. Harps? Weepy white-boy falsetto? Big beats and cheerleading chants? These days, indie has it all.
With a decade as shaman-in-residence for one of indie rock’s biggest bands, The New Pornographers, and eight solo records on his résumé, Canadian songwriter Dan Bejar is hardly an opportunistic trend-hopper. His albums as Destroyer have cultivated the aura of absinthe-soused insularity. He makes grand literary allusions that, more often than not, cryptically double back to his own work. So it’s likely not by cynical design that Kaputt, Bejar’s fifth for Durham’s Merge Records, should seem so in touch with the microtrends of the minute. But in its subversion of what cool might have meant, it is.
Album opener, “Chinatown,” sounds like a version of the hazy, ’80s-indebted “chillwave” trend grown up and inverted. The vocals here are crisp and up-front, with gauzy synth patterns anchored in the background. But the song goes even deeper into the ghastly unhip when saxophone notes rise. These brass tones are not the agitating skronk of revered punks like James Chance. Rather, as on last year’s debut from soft-rock supergroup Gayngs, they’re supple and buttery, closer to the poodle-haired apex of ’90s lame, Kenny G.
In the pilot of the late-’80s pretty-boy cop show 21 Jump Street, Johnny Depp sits alone in his room grieving his sainted dead-cop father. In a moment of exquisitely manly angst, he gazes at an old photo, a sax on lips, just wailing. The scene, now YouTube eternal, is a howler that sums up how soft-focus horn soloing became a corny bane of the alt-teen’s worldview. Bejar doesn’t stop at copious sax; in the background of a track like “Blue Eyes,” he adds the sort of wankily emotive guitar licks you’d expect from Beverly Hills 90210 as Brandon Walsh mists up before a California sunset, wondering how Dylan would ever get it together. As Kaputt continues to unfold, it sounds great, current, probably the most accomplished set of Bejar’s long recording career. So, uh, what gives?
Timing is important, and a dozen little previously noted cracks in the dam of cool have been preparing indie ears for marble-smooth pop. Kaputt succeeds on craft rather than context. Bejar’s vocals have previously sounded hurried and excitable, like a prophet racing to recount a vision before it fades. Here, he’s more rounded, hushed, relaxed. He exceeds his usual effort to balance obtuse wordplay and conversational asides. “Savage Night at the Opera,” which follows indiedom’s trajectory by feigning post-punk jitters before becoming something like New Wave on Quaaludes, provides a representative line: “Hey mystic prince of the purlieu at night…I heard your record. It’s alright.”
On the title track, he finally provides details that seem disarmingly, personally relatable, ruminating on the bygone heyday of British music glossies, “Sounds, Smash Hits, Melody Maker, NME, all sound like a dream to me,” and youth amusingly misspent, “Wasting your days, chasing some girls (alright, chasing cocaine) through the backrooms of the world all night.” Vancouver’s Sibel Thrasher nudges “Song for America” toward blue-eyed soul; that small shift sounds revelatory, opening up his loner/recluse character considerably. These smart, humanizing refinements of previous strength allow all the slices of cheese to melt pleasingly. Glossy, maximalist touches on top of Bejar’s college professor-on-peyote rock delivery might beget overkill, but everything is so restrained and tasteful on Kaputt that you sort of get how these glossy accentuations gained traction in the first place, pre-cliché.
“I was 20 years old in 1992,” goes a casual line in the last song, “Bay of Pigs,” maybe explaining Kaputt‘s success. While the young chillwavers riff on ’80s chart pop as novelty, Bejar remembers how these songs worked, or why they didn’t. Setting out to make a pop record rather than an underground rock record, Bejar uses familiar tools, or the toys of childhood. That 11-minute closer (which, historically speaking, is closer to Vietnam than Bay of Pigs, given its quiet beginning that barely hints at how epic it becomes) could be his career pinnacle, a triumph of muted ambience, graceful kinetics and red-wine shit-talk. Of its moment but also timelessly accomplished, uncool yet suddenly hip, this version of Destroyer indeed destroysjust softly.