In the long, disjointed list of “themes alluded to or avoided” in the press release to Dan Bejar’s 9th LP as Destroyer, Kaputt, a couple lines stick out as more serious-minded than others: “The hopelessness of the future of music” and “The pointlessness of writing songs for today.” If perhaps a little sour and self-handicapping, they struck me as intellectual – something Bejar often receives credit for – and after listening to his self-examining musings on such themes on recent 12″ b-side “Grief Point” I was half expecting some more straightforward handling of lyrical content this time around. As it turns out, I was wrong, and Bejar has passed through the musical valley of the shadow and came back the same cool, cryptic dude. The music, after chilling in the pleasantly liquid, laid back “European Blues” of his last two records, has taken an unexpected turn toward a mix of smooth jazz, adult contemporary, and 80’s dance pop. It’s hilarious and relaxing, and not without some moments of exhilarating experimentation. But like Will Oldham’s countrypolitan rerecording of Palace Music’s greatest hits as Bonnie “Prince” Billy with a band of Nashville session wringers, the whole thing will make you scratch your head.
This hard-slotting into a quaint style is reminiscent of the midi-stylings of Your Blues (2004), though that foray came off as more genuine, a fitting coupling of words with sound. Perhaps composing in adult contemporary smooth jazz was a challenge which made music interesting to Bejar again, or choosing such a maligned mode is a statement about the “pointlessness of writing songs for today.” Or maybe he’s just listening to a lot of smooth music and was compelled to explore it himself. As per his M.O., the intention is likely meant to be slippery, indefinite, and difficult to answer. The intentions of this stylistic change aside, the elephant in the closet here is that Bejar hasn’t written a truly great Destroyer song since Your Blues, which was chock full of them. Lightning isn’t supposed to strike in the same place twice, but “Notorious Lightning” has been rehashed in thinly veiled disguise on Destroyer albums repeatedly for the last five years. While it’s admittedly a neat trick with impressive linguistic and attitudinal attenuations, the emotional payoff of Destroyer tracks has dropped as the running times and lyric sheets have lengthened. Kaputt is filled with light, sprightly textures, all pleasant and groovy, but the album still seems to lumber along with breezy but basic sequencer rhythms, indistinct melodies, and sax blowing similarly all the way through.
When the music locks into a recognizable precursor – for example New Order, Saint Etienne, The Postal Service – the record becomes more fun to listen to, because the trainspotting allows the listener a chance to participate. That said, it seems like Bejar and company are getting close to a viable fusion at times, usually during instrumental breaks. The high points here happen when the sounds break out from their expected roles – the taser-buzzing electric guitar of “Blue Eyes”, the sax shredding on “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker” (which also sports the album’s most enduring melody), the cacophony that plays out “Song for America” – and if Bejar is really going to succeed in this mode, he needs to foreground these incongruities and express at least a minuscule connection between why things sound the way they do and what the words are saying. The lyrics here could easily be traded out for any on the last two albums without much diminishing or improving the experiences.
Back to the difference between Oldham and Bejar: What sets the Bonnie “Prince” Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music record apart from Kaputt is that there’s a sense that Oldham’s just having a little shiteating fun demythologizing his previous invention, while Bejar holds tight to his own self-referencing mythology, simply adding another awkward style to his repertoire as a layer of pseudo-complexity. The main problem isn’t the inscrutability, as many artists – Destroyer included – have found a way to couple obscurant lyrics with levity and energy. The problem gets to be the selling of the idea that cross-references, non-sequiturs, tragicomedies, and self-aware asides are a manifestation of intelligence and unique talent when they aren’t. Ultra-conscious interconnection is the present we’ve all been living in for a good while now, and working in that vein in itself is no longer enough. Until Bejar once again travels beyond the mere bulk of observation and awareness to say something about how we got there or where we are headed, his art is going to seem more attention-seeking than attention-grabbing.