Cheesy things and kitschy things are all about perspective. What’s one man’s treasure is another man’s trash and vice versa, and with this ever-changing world of ours, there’s generational gaps and disconnections that help to support that. As a child of the 80s, I find a particular amount of horror in some of the “mistakes” made during that decade, which includes things like shoulder pads, leg warmers, perms, an AIDS outbreak and some serious crap that some artists tried to pass off as pop music when it was anything but. To this day, synth pop or soft rock done in a certain way still really irks me if it dredges up some bad 80s memories. It’d be nice if bad 80s music were confined strictly to that decade, but with so many artists reaching backwards to find and exploit sounds of the past and adapt them to more modern conventions, now and then somebody goes to that spot and tries to pull it off yet again but with fingers crossed for a different result. Chromeo has been working that angle for a few albums now, and while there’s certainly a market for their brand of exploitation, most of the time it disgusts me. One of the people I would never expect to take a crack at bad 80s music would be Dan Bejar aka Destroyer, but on his new record “Kaputt” he does exactly that. Of course if anybody could pull it off with any sense of legitimacy, Destroyer would also be high up on that list.
Over the course of what’s now nine studio albums, Dan Bejar has proven himself to be a brilliant composer and songwriter, piecing together avant-pop melodies that are obtuse but still work in the exact ways they’re needed to. What was a little troubling about the last Destroyer record, 2008’s “Trouble In Dreams” was that it continued to use the same sorts of influences and approaches as the couple records prior to it, thereby turning an oft-unpredictable project into an utterly predictable one. 2009’s “Bay of Pigs” EP was a huge step back in the right direction. The nearly 14-minute title track was spacey, psychedelic and synth-infused with a large brushstroke of disco for a dance party should you desire one. It was a nice curveball that seemed to suggest the next Destroyer album would be in a similar, equally creative vein. With a shortened-by-two-minutes version titled “Bay of Pigs (Detail)” listed as the closing track on “Kaputt”, there was plenty of reason to believe that a more electro or disco-themed album was on the way. As it turns out, “Bay of Pigs (Detail)” is a standout track on the new album, but less because of how great it is and more because it’s the only one that doesn’t fully gel with everything that came before it. Instead of mixing 70s disco with modern electro tropes, “Kaputt” is Destroyer jumping to the late 70s/early 80s by pushing soft rock with a touch of jazz and a hint of pop. As I wasn’t very aware of much of the styles back in that era given that I was somewhere between infant and toddler, the way I generally define music from that era is via classic film soundtracks. While attempting a more John Hughes movie soundtrack probably would have served Destroyer well, “Kaputt” comes off more of a cross between the dark, brassy jazz of the “Taxi Driver” soundtrack mixed with the synth-pop of the “Scarface” (1983) soundtrack. By equating much of what happens on this record with those two classic films, it makes the whole thing that much more bearable and fascinating to listen to.
Opening track and first single “Chinatown” is a shock to the system from the very start, sputtering for a couple seconds at the open before what’s either electronic drums or a drum machine comes in with a steady but unnatural beat. Mixed with a lushly strummed acoustic guitar, the two fare well together until some heavy synths and wobbly keyboards take over the melody as the first verse begins. By the time the chorus strikes, a lone trumpet is fluttering in and out and around thanks to some echo effects. Bejar also gets some serious backing vocal help courtesy of Sibel Thrasher, and this is just the first of many appearances she’ll make on the album. The second verse welcomes a saxophone to the party for an extra touch of jazz. With a tempo that’s a little faster than a heavy ballad but a little slower than something you can tap your feet to, at its core the song is very much a condensed version of what the rest of the record will sound like. If “Chinatown” doesn’t thrill you, “Kaputt” is probably not going to be your record. On “Blue Eyes”, Bejar may make reference to New Order, but the song sounds very little like that band, though it might serve him well if it did. Instead, similar to how eyes come in pairs, you can pair up the different instruments on the song as each is essential to the other’s success. For example, the thinly plucked electric guitar isn’t as effective without the heavy bass as a counterpoint, just as the trumpet holds back some of the jazzy mood without the saxophone to compliment it. The chorus of female voices backing up and providing harmonies for Bejar are equally important as well, while the synths and percussion have their own thing going too. Among other things, those pairings alone are testament to the impressive and intricate way these songs are composed. But speaking of the last track’s reference to New Order, “Savage Night at the Opera”‘s towering synths and bouncy bass line actually does pay legitimate homage to the band. The electric guitar that comes in at the halfway mark is classic New Order as well, and the lack of any brass along with the solid tempo makes for one of the less interesting songs on the album but one of the easiest to fall in love with.
Two minutes of ambient, shimmering electronic sounds with some light acoustic guitar and piano begins the 8.5 minute “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker”, just before the flute shows up for some smooth jazz action. The flute is gone by the time Bejar starts singing though, as the track morphs into some late 70s funk, with a bass, piano and drum machine combination that works well with the brass section that hangs around for awhile before breaking into full-on free form solo mode for the last two minutes. Lyrically the song is significant as well, given that’s Kara Walker’s contribution to the track. She’s an artist specializing in racial history, and Bejar sings her unconventional words to interesting effect here. The six minutes that make up the title track “Kaputt” are remarkable in how they effortlessly blend some 80s-leaning dancefloor beats with brassy, smooth jazz. Without a doubt it’s challenging to pull off something like that, not to mention while Bejar sings the lines, “Wasting your days, chasing some girls alright/Chasing cocaine through the backrooms of the world all night”. When you really think about it in context with how the music pairs together a sexy saxophone melody with a coke-fueled dancefloor beat, there’s nothing more appropriate both for the song and the album as a whole.
There’s so much about “Kaputt” that absolutely screams corny, cheesy, out of style, and tacky. Pull some of the brass out of this record and you’ve got something much more new wave and on the righter/better side of 80s music. Take out all the synths and leave the brass, and you’ve got something severely soft rock/jazz that’s just about the worst sin you can commit to record (in my humble opinion). When placed together as they are on this album, the natural conclusion to draw is that it falls somewhere in between those two parallels. The thing is, “Kaputt” is not an okay record, or a simply good or bad one. Instead, it’s a miracle of an achievement – one of those rare cases where two separate and unequal parts can combine to create something greater than either could hope or dream to accomplish separately. Perhaps the best way to describe it is by saying that the worst elements present here take a nosedive so far down that they fall into the “so bad it’s good” category. It’s a new found appreciation for camp value, and a gambit that on paper appears to make no sense. Hell, reading about it now probably makes very little sense as well. Yet listening to it feels strangely familiar even though you’ve probably never heard anything like this before. This is not only one of the most original Destroyer albums to date, it’s also one of the most original albums you’ll hear this year – that’s virtually guaranteed. What else can satisfy fans of both Roxy Music and Kenny G in one sitting? Or maybe the better question is, why would anyone even want to attempt such a feat? Only Dan Bejar knows the answer to that one.