Despicable Familiarity

Destroyer front man Dan Bejar.Photo: Ted Bois

A friend of mine once suggested that if you used certain parts of the Internet to gauge what was deplorable to humanity, you would come up with a list that ran (1) genocide, (2) rape, (3) liking things other people can guess that you like, and (4) murder. This person also guessed that I would like the band Destroyer.

Which is funny. Destroyer’s an act I’d actually spent years passing over, partly on the grounds that it seemed like something I already knew how to enjoy. It’s the long-running project of a Vancouver musician (and fringe member of the power-pop band the New Pornographers) named Dan Bejar, and it’s had a cultish reputation: an oddball indie band, situated somewhere between David Bowie, Pavement, and an imaginary stage show. Led by a man in love with words and artifice, he seemed to view music as a theater of ideas and even a serious forum for writing; an act whose appeal is insular and invites obsession, drawing people away from “the world” and into some puzzle of metatextual arcana, signature tics, and a whole lot of sly rock references. There’s an entire website devoted to annotating Bejar’s lyrics. If that strikes you as precisely the sort of thing a rock critic might enjoy, predictably and deplorably—music by music geeks, for music geeks, for word geeks, for people who would use the term “metatextual”—well, you’re probably right. And since it’s often more fun to learn how to enjoy new things, in new ways, I’d been putting this band aside.

That was a sizable mistake on my part, but it wound up paying off: I started digging into Destroyer just in time to be maximally excited by this month’s Kaputt, a gorgeous paradox of an album that—bear with me—makes more sense by not trying to make so much sense. I suspect it’s the best and most recommendable thing Bejar’s done. There’s the sound of it, for one. Gone is the antic, wordy, idea-packed rock stuff he used to offer. Kaputt is smooth, spacious, and pretty, filled with the lush synthesizer-and-saxophone pop that marked out sophisticated adult listening in the eighties. (Some rock fans may crinkle their noses at this and call it “smooth jazz,” but there’s something about those sounds that’s back in fashion.) The songs flow gradually, instead of being broken up into verses, choruses, and changes. And Bejar’s voice—once a high, dry yelp, the sound of someone trying to convey ideas too convoluted to be calm about—has become lazy and seductive, as if he’s given up, laid down, and is just singing to himself now.

That’s the other thing. Bejar’s lyrics here are still full of his usual tics: obscure images, women’s names, specific years, evocative quotables. (Three among many: “It’s not a war till someone loses an eye”; “Love is a political beast”; “That slender-wristed, white, translucent business passes for love these days”—though the last of those comes from a collaboration with visual artist Kara Walker.) But he also spends a lot of time repeating phrases, as if he’s run out of language and is now just privately savoring the gist of something. A few of Kaputt’s songs read more like the internal monologues of characters in a doorstop novel the rest of us haven’t had a chance to read. “I write poetry for myself,” he sings—and who’d have guessed that that would turn out more accessible than material from the days when he was feverishly spilling out words and coming off cryptic?

Bejar’s usually divisive. His records make perfect sense to some and read as arch, too clever, or difficult to others—even an album as rich, pleasant, and ingratiating as Kaputt is. He’s managed something new and charming here, though: making a record that rewards casual listening as much as it does obsession. It’s slick.

Merge records.

Despicable Familiarity