February 1, 2011

Destroyer trades lyrical depth for disco ambiance

Reviewers have read into the title of Destroyer's new album, Kaputt, to mean a sense of foreboding in an album that talks of “Wasting your days chasing some girls, all right/Chasing cocaine through the backrooms of the world.” Turns out that Daniel Bejar, Destroyer’s frontman and a member of The New Pornographers, just liked the sound of the word when he saw it on a book cover, but never mind. Kaputt—with a luxurious feeling conjured by blinding synthesizers, reverbed horns, and washy electric guitar—brings to mind a night of doing salacious things while on your illegal substance of choice, all while listening to smooth jazz.

It’s clear from even a cursory listen of Kaputt that the album is an experiment in creating a sonic atmosphere. Some mainstays of Destroyer are still there, especially the dense, almost impenetrable lyrics that demand figurative rather than literal readings and are riddled with non sequiturs. But new to this record is the indulgent feel and channeling of soft rock, disco, and funk bass lines to achieve a dominating aesthetic effect. Trumpet and tenor saxophone make an appearance on every track. The former is often under the influence of so much reverb that it sounds as if it were recorded in an empty concert hall next door. Sax plaintively finishes Bejar's phrases and closes songs with whispered, subtoned warmth. Drums employ hi hat on upbeats, conveying disco sensibilities.

At times, the effect can be such that you are struck by the wryness of the entire enterprise. Bejar and Destroyer manage to come off in such a way that they can be taken seriously throughout the record. (Consider that Kaputt achieved an 8.8 rating from Pitchfork in an article that referenced its smooth jazz overtones positively, calling them “sad and sexy and joyous.”) At other times, I was left wishing that Destroyer had spent more time replicating the complexity and epic scope of the compositions on Rubies, an excellent record, rather than channeling the ‘80s, a decade recognized for its dubious contributions to pop culture.

The album’s highlights include “Chinatown,” a medium tempo groove based on acoustic guitar strumming, high electric countermelodies, sax runs and plaintive trumpet, and lots of tambourine. The title track, complete with a chimey ostinato by the synth, brings to mind a lot of mustachioed men grooving in a pink and purple lit club. But the horn work here is effective. Trumpet is looped to create a sort of fugue in support of the meaty funk of bass, and saxophone is particularly effective at channeling wistfulness in lots of notes that die away with vibrato.

The closer, the 11-minute “Bay of Pigs,” is by far the most compositionally rich on the album. Low synths, the sonic equivalent of being underwater, constitute a minute and a half of opening until Bejar comes in with “Listen, I’ve been drinking.” It is a particularly effective instance of a harmony between the aesthetic sensibility the record tries to pursue—washed-out, indulgent to a fault—while maintaining a certain compositional integrity.

The same can be said about a line where Bejar sings to his lost paramour, “On a night like this, why, she’s pro-stars, pro-sky,” high-pitched chimes twinkle in the background. Then mention of a discotheque is made, and the funk begins. Acoustic guitars churn out a Latin beat in one section; electric guitars take their time as they arpeggiate major and minor 7th chords, a Bejar-ian trademark; bass continues to thump on downbeats. Bejar has said that the intention was ambient disco, and the effect is well enough achieved. But what’s more important is that the song maintains other well-known hallmarks of Bejar’s composition: an epicness of scope, a fixed idea that permeates the changing sections of a song, different textures of sound, and the emotional pull that comes from those arpeggiated guitar chords.

As a whole, Kaputt is a bold and clever record, and a radical departure from Destroyer’s earlier work. The sonic atmosphere of over-indulgence comes across honestly and palpably. But too often, Kaputt sounds like a record where the project of channeling a mood took precedence over writing the harmonically dense, structurally sophisticated music that is usually essential to Destroyer’s music. With regard to their new album, I was reminded of a poignant lyric from Rubies: “All good things must come to an end/the bad ones just go on forever.” Too often does the luxury turn into lethargy, too often does the music all sound the same–too often does Kaputt, for all its cleverness, just sound like it will go on forever.