My review of Dan Bejar’s last album, Trouble in Dreams, channeled my (then) obsession with dialectic – with the past repeating and constantly transforming – in order to give some meaning to the album. It also allowed me to avoid saying Destroyer was slowing down, getting tired, wearing out and/or repeating himself. Giving the benefit of the doubt to artists ensures reviews aren’t just collections of faux-clever bon mots, scoring points on an invisible cred board. Plus, I genuinely love Destroyer and – knowing that Bejar is a thoughtful artist and noting his past albums – thought there must be something more to an album like Trouble in Dreams, which seemed in a very purposeful way to be turning in on itself and structurally referring to Rubies. In other words, Destroyer, well-known for referencing the history of rock as well as its own back catalog, was now mimicking even the structure and style of the previous album in some grand post-modern statement of self-similarity (20th century literature is full of mirrors and doppelgangers). Or maybe he was out of ideas.
That was the question I posed. If the next album – what we now know is Kaputt – was just the same, we’d know my analysis was just bullshit, a little too generous toward Bejar, which should have said Trouble in Dreams was a good and interesting album, but one that was simply a retread of the one before it. (Of course, the real question is: How can we expect endless novelty from artists? Or: how long can artists stay creatively vital for? Or, what standard should we hold artists to throughout their careers? Seeing Pavement do a reunion tour or seeing Woody Allen’s latest middling farce scares me about the prospects of being a creative force ad infinitum and humbles me about how I should be critically understanding these artists.) But if the next album was different, we’d know this was purposeful, and that it’s meaningfulness only comes into view when seen as a link in a progression or a movement.
And Trouble in Dreams was a link, because Kaputt is radically different. Maybe in a negative fashion, Bejar saw himself getting soft and responded by pulling the rug out from under himself. Maybe in a positive fashion, Kaputt organically grew out of its predecessor. Either way, it’s a response to the method, style and substance of Trouble in Dreams. In a good interview with Ryan Dombal on Pitchfork, Bejar said the following, “I know my last record, Trouble in Dreams, has my strongest lyric sheet. But I also know that, as a record, there’s something off about it, which is fine.” Kaputt seems to spin off what was indeed the strongest, most beautiful, expansive, world-building lyrics Destroyer had yet sung (especially “Shooting Rockets (From the Desk of Night’s Ape)”). It’s in the way Bejar leaves phrasing aside, no longer bothering to even fit them into verses. Not that there aren’t verses and choruses – they just aren’t easy animals to classify. While Kaputt lyrically builds on Trouble in Dreams, its combination of synths and saxes is bizarrely different. It’s not sloppy or tossed off, but the rhythm of his lyrics, its kind of prose-poetry nature, entails a less-coherent structure. Between the lyrics, his relaxed singing style and the album’s smooth sound, it gives the feeling of being off-kilter, even though it’s controlled.
While listening to Kaputt, I hear (perhaps due to my idée fixe dialectic) Bejar’s past bubbling up transformed. The album itself strikes me as extremely late-period Leonard Cohen, from the synths to the preponderance of background R&B singers; “Blue Eyes” even has the cadence of Cohen. There’s a certain point some artists get to where they become comfortable with themselves, shun vulnerability and begin letting their childhood in again, and it shows up in their work in new and unexpected ways. Kaputt feels like that kind of an album. While there are a lot of synths and potentially goofy background singers, it’s missing the as-a-lark feeling that 2004’s Your Blues has. It feels like Bejar’s comfortable with himself – relaxed even – and that feeling saturates the entire album. It’s a confidence that makes Kaputt the best Destroyer album in ages.