The most freeing — and to some, confounding — thing about the music of Destroyer, the decades-long personal project of The New Pornographers’ Dan Bejar, is how inscrutable it can be. Bejar is known for his mighty intellect and what could be called a disinterest in hand-holding. The expansive, abstract nature of the Destroyer catalog invites obsessive analysis, mediations on how to strip the complex instrumentals to their core, how to crack the codes on codes within the dense, meandering lyrics.
Like most of Destroyer’s output, ken isn’t an album about something. Bejar has said that he was thinking of “the last few years of the Thatcher era” when writing it, and if you want to analyze ken’s intentions from an academic perspective, that’s really the only key you need. But it is far more an artist’s album and a listener’s album than a critic’s album. (That’s part of what makes it so fun to write about and so difficult to evaluate.) Bejar’s music, as varied and uncategorizable as each song on its own may be, is always more lyrical than narrative, more feeling than statement. ken, in this tradition, is not opaque in meaning, but not transparent — rather, translucent.
But let’s dig down a little. Boasting perhaps the most Thatcher-esque of ken’s song titles, “Sky’s Grey” is the album’s opening track. It begins with rich piano over light, skittering percussion and expands to add earnest, reverberating guitar. “Should’ve tried pretending that anything was there,” Bejar laments, playing up the pain. As biting and articulate as ever, he calls, “Come one, come all, dear revolutionary capitalists.”
The fullness of “Sky’s Grey” reveals growth for Destroyer, and that growth continues through the next track, “In the Morning”. Of all the songs on ken, this one feels the most like stepping right into the ’80s, with a sleek wham-pow drum machine and glowing keyboard that sound like they’re building to an epic John Cusackian dash toward crazy, crazy love. But then Bejar’s reedy voice cuts through, cracking as he puts on his faux-theatrical delivery, part sneer, part tremble, always direct and confident: “So you wanted it to be good/ You thought that it would be okay.”
While Bejar may have been ruminating on the contradictory warped confidence, lush emptiness, and conservative bleakness of Thatcher’s 1980’s on ken, he doesn’t sing from within that era. He’s far out from it, looking back with the mellowed acceptance that comes from time. Indeed, there are moments when he sounds almost charmed by the bizarreness. For example, “Cover from the Sun”, arguably the most revelatory track on ken, is propulsive and joyful, jangly, flirty, and full of longing. One of a handful of songs that barely cross the two-minute threshold, it’s the closest thing to a Destroyer take on “Friday I’m in Love” that you could ever hope for. And on “Tinseltown Dripping in Blood”, the funky, sexy groove that drives the song sparks and burns against Bejar’s dry, blasé delivery of lines like “Off in the corner doing poet’s work/ That’s alright for now” and “tinseltown dripping in blood/ Tinsel women dancing in the wind/ Dead flowers on the skyline/ Hey, how was the wine?” It’s irresistible.
Sonically, ken evokes indulgence, excess, and theatricality, but through the filters of wisdom and gentle but persistent curiosity. Destroyer’s saxophones, which on previous albums have downright dripped with seediness and sorrow and spite, don’t hold as much power on ken, and that feels like it’s by design. They’re still sad, but softer. Still harsh, but more forgiving. A bit playful. Midway through ken is album highlight “A Light Travels Down the Catwalk”. With its haunting ruminations on empty posing and a “boulevard of sinners,” the song says about artifice and deadly, sinister glamour what Nicolas Refn’s film Neon Demon tried to, but in one hour and 55 minutes less time and far more effectively.
Around the seventh track, “Rome”, things get a little slow and meandering, to the album’s detriment. The looseness is not unexpected for Bejar, but given the way the first half so elegantly and confidently pushes forward, it’s a bit of a letdown. Meanwhile, the closing track, “La Regle Du Jeu”, is a curious one. In some ways, it makes sense; it’s darkly triumphant. It has, to the likely surprise of some listeners, a showy electric guitar solo. But it feels like a song for a different record, and it doesn’t leave the listener feeling satisfied. (Not that this is Bejar’s main concern.)
Overall, ken is one of Destroyer’s most accessible albums. It features nary a song over six minutes and several under three, its sounds are compact and crisp, and its arrangements are clever and cohesive. There are riffs. And Bejar sounds more forgiving and (in the most complimentary way I can possibly hope to mean it) older than he’s ever sounded. He’s still intimately musing on people’s magnificent glories and tragic shortcomings. He’s still painting beautiful and jarring settings that make you feel unmoored but whole (“In Berlin it’s sunny/ In Barcelona it snows”). But it all feels more sincere, while remaining as effective as ever.
Essential Tracks: “Cover from the Sun”, “In the Morning”, and “A Light Travels Down the Catwalk”