Let’s talk about Destroyer

Over Christmas and New Year I read Carl Wilson’s excellent book about Celine Dion, in which he examines not just Dion’s music (and the album Let’s talk About Love in particular) but also her ontology, her place in Canadian, and specifically Quebecoise, culture, and the nature of kitsch, emotionalism, and above all taste.

Much of the rumination on what Celine means in French-Canadian culture is, of course, a little lost on a boy from South Devon, but the stuff about the nature of taste appealed massively to my interest in the utility of music, the question of what we use it for and how we choose it. In particular, at one point, Wilson describes Sonic Youth as (and I’m quoting from memory here, as I’ve lent the book to Rob, so forgive me if I’m a little wrong) a band who make music which is especially well suited to a certain kind of “aesthetic contemplation”.

This idea of “aesthetic contemplation” seemed to ring home particularly hard, more so than the stories from Celine fans about exactly what it was about the woman and her music that they loved, and more so than Carl’s own perspective of a disintegrating relationship and a kind of typical white-male emotional reserve.

(Unsurprisingly these tales revealed Celine’s fans not to be brainless housewife drones gazing into the middle distance whilst changing a nappy to the strains of “My Heart Will Go On” and dreaming of a handsome lover from the wrong side of the tracks with a heart of gold, which I suspect may be the default straw(wo)man fan in the minds of a certain kind of pop fan.)

Being well suited to “aesthetic contemplation” isn’t, I imagine, the predominant thing most people look for when they go about the business of choosing what music to listen to. In fact, most people try and avoid choosing what music to listen to as much as possible; from digital radio to last.fm to iTunes Genius, technology is getting better and better at choosing music for us.

But for many “serious” (I use the word practically pejoratively) music fans, the kind who are, or would aspire to be, “critical” and “discerning” in their listening, “aesthetic contemplation” is probably a more likely end-use of music than, say, dancing. Which is why, perhaps, drawing on Carl’s theories, music like Sonic Youth wins more critical favour than music like Celine Dion. And why albums like Destroyer’s Kaputt can inspire such fervent, frenzied discussion.

A week or so ago, Charlie on ILM drunkenly started a thread asking if Destroyer’s Kaputt is any better or worse than PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, after the former beat the latter in the forum’s end-of-year poll. I got in early, said something about Kaputt being very American and Let England Shake being very English, and imagined the thread would die off relatively quickly, as both albums have been discussed to death on ILM over the last 12 months.

But it didn’t. It went on and on and on and on and on, to over 800 posts, many of them very detailed and considered and impassioned, and most of them extolling Kaputt’s virtues.

I included Kaputt in my favourite albums of 2011, positioning at number 5, but not saying much beyond a surface reading of the aesthetic and how lyrically compelling it is. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been listening to it more and more, and even bought a second copy of it on CD in order to get another 20 minutes of it (in the form of vinyl & UK only track The Laziest River, which takes up all 20 additional minutes in a hazy, semi-ambient amble).

Kaputt is, as for many people I gather, my first exposure to Destroyer. Initially I was intrigued but not struck; Dan Bejar’s weak, walkabout voice is an acquired taste, which didn’t come across well compared to my other favourites of 2011 (Patrick Wolf, PJ Harvey, Wild Beasts, Antlers), his lyrics are complex and abstruse, requiring an amount of attention to decipher their intricate layers which I’m not entirely used to giving, and, on Kaputt at least, the song structures are so meandering and keen to avoid obvious repetition (there’s nothing so uncouth as a chorus) (and yet, somehow, it’s still catchy) that one can easily find oneself lost in a tune’s topography.

Still, there’s something exquisite here, on many levels: lyrical, musical, physical. The sound of it is a rich pleasure, with extravagant, fretless basslines and twirling horns atop a bubbling plateau of synthesizers and modernist ambience. Yes, aspects of it are descended from a very particular kind of smooth 80s sophistication, with gated, damp-sounding, synthetic drums, and echoing, distant trumpets, but there’s such care here, such love, such craft (everything is rendered and mixed beautifully), that it’s clearly not merely the homage or pastiche that some people claim.

Bejar’s claimed Kaputt to be his most ‘pop’ record, which seems bloody-minded when you take his lyrics, vocals, and winding, chorus-avoiding structures into consideration. But somehow it is: although there’s a huge amount of space between his vocal lines, acres of drifting time where guitars, synths, keyboards et al vamp off each other like cool kissing cousins, there are also an obscene amount of nagging hooks; the sudden eruption of a guitar solo, a bizarrely-phrased lyrical turn which doesn’t scan melodically but somehow gets stuck in your head, one of those glistening trumpet runs. At times the album can feel like a procession of strange, delightful moments. Because that’s what it is.

Lyrically I’ve still not got to grips with it; I’m not sure I can. When Bejar sings “Sounds, Smash Hits, Melody Maker, NME / all sounds like a dream to me” in the title track it feels almost as if he’s breaking the fourth wall, or whatever its musical equivalent might be, but I’m not sure how. It’s almost like Kevin Rowland exhorting Dexys Midnight Runners to “make this precious”, the sound of a ravenous, helpless, compulsive music fan singing about making music itself. But Bejar is at a remove, singing about dreaming about making music, or remembering dreaming about making music.

Ironically, he’s said in interviews that Kaputt is the album where he’s paid least attention to the words, that it’s all about the delivery and not the content. Which might seem strange given that he’s hardly Rufus Wainwright, but he’s doing something here, something unusual that I haven’t come across before, which feels avant-garde and mysterious and intriguing. I’m not a songwriter so I never know how anyone has written any given song, but here I really cannot fathom how these compositions might come together. Bejar’s said he couldn’t play you any of them on a guitar. But he could sing them to you unaccompanied.

The more I listen to Kaputt, the more fascinated by it, moved by it, and excited by it I become. That’s an amazing trick to turn.


9 responses to “Let’s talk about Destroyer

  1. “said something about Kaputt being very American”
    Uh, Bejar is Canadian. Very Canadian, actually.

  2. humanizingthevacuum

    Good post, Nick.

    Ian, I think Nick was just pointing out what Bejar said.

  3. I know Bejar is “very Canadian”! I meant that the record sounds and feels very American (as does PJ’s Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, despite her being from down the road from me, as it were). It’s figurative.

  4. Thanks for the (defective by 20 minutes) CD Nick…payment will be forthcoming. I listened to Kaputt for the first time yesterday. First time through I thought it sounded pretty yucky, second time through I was intrigued and got an inkling as to why it has garnered such praise…I am looking forwards to hearing it for a third time!

    Whilst it sounds very dissimilar, I too was minded to draw a comparison with Dexy’s…not sure why now that I am away from the record, but it definitely struck me at some point during the album.

    Of course, I was reminded of Hats era Blue Nile much more, because in many places it sounds just like it (not a bad thing).

  5. I assumed it was figurative, and I was also being figurative. Because I don’t think the record is very American at all, although maybe that’s easier to see as a Canadian (Americans tend to absorb/lay claim to anything even vaguely similar) than it is from overseas.

  6. Well, the cover is (correct me if I’m wrong) a view over LA, and it does have a song called “Song For America” on it…

  7. I thought it was LA too but the video for Savage Night … to me suggests in its ending that it may be his hometown of Vancouver. I think the record sounds British in that the touchstones (Roxy Music, ABC, Blue Nile, Johnny Hates Jazz, Everything but the Girl) are British, at least the ones that spring to my mind. The detached sophistication definitely seems more European to my ears.

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