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Review: Destroyer Changes Costumes Once Again on the Alluring ken

Every Destroyer album is defined by a mélange of stylistic quirks that are distinctly bottled up in Dan Bejar’s vocal takes, and amount to what makes every Destroyer record sound like a Destroyer record despite the contrasting musical scenery. The essence of Destroyer is his unmistakable, stinging vocal timbre—the poncey dropped R’s, syllable-packed cadences, and close rhymes overstuffed with proper nouns recalled from literary seminars past. It’s the stuff that makes him easy to cartoonishly impersonate, though not exactly approximate, as Bejar can pack extremes of brutal irony, symbolist abstraction and unmistakable wistfulness into just a few lines of erratic soliloquy.

As Bejar winds his way into the possible autumn of his 20-year-plus career, it is his voice, and those invasive implied narrative voices within it, that hold his catalogue together. It makes a Destroyer record sound like itself, and not some disingenuous stylistic dress-up game, guaranteeing the continuing devotion of old fans, even as the gestures he imports from whichever old alternative-pop LPs he’s enamored with change drastically. ken, Bejar’s sparest album in terms of lyrical density and length in some time, is an aggressive, well-chiseled shift. It creates a new, more exposed landscape than Bejar’s last two offerings, the cloudy sophisti-pop of 2011’s Kaputt and the disparate crooner fantasias on 2015’s Poison Season. Here, occasional gothy resonances are conjured by rude pulsations that recall the default noises a starter-level synth might make when you press a random button on it.

They are his latest dare to follow him where he’s going, though sometimes you worry he’s veering toward a sordid extreme for his own amusement. But if you like records like the Cure’s Disintegration or—on the goofier side—Yaz’s Upstairs at Eric’s, there’s nothing sordid here. Fans of the Blue Nile will love Bejar’s riff on the title and chorus of their biggest single on “Tinseltown Dripping in Blood,” and the open-ended sentimentality of songs like “Sky’s Grey.” ken uses sounds that are fairly ubiquitous in the pop and retro-pop lexicons: gated drum reverb, forlorn high synth leads, carbonated bass undulations, and phased-to-hell electric guitars. The Dylan-esque sneers of Poison Season are mitigated here, as the delivery is more straightforwardly theatrical, directly channeling the well-quaffed romance-pop stars of the early MTV era that the backbeats seem suited for. (That is, it doesn’t sound like it was recorded while lying down on the couch.)

ken’s plasticine backdrops offer pleasantly ironic runways for some of the strongest, or at least stickiest, lyrics Bejar’s ever written. These songs are invaded by lines and images that could be—or have literally been—in songs before: “the rhythm of the night,” the light on the catwalk, “like a rolling stone/always alone,” “what comes round is going round again,” and so on. The cliches help do the heavy lifting, anchoring the songs and inspiring us to plumb our private emotions or record collections. Almost without exception, the songs on ken climax with repetitive mantras, and because cathartic repetition is a rewarding device in music, they are both the best and silliest parts of the song at once. “Sky’s Grey” ends in eccentric auto-critique, as he invites “dear young revolutionary capitalists” into the world of the album like a ringmaster, then cycles through the line “I’ve been working on the new Oliver Twist” half-a-dozen times. It’s delivered with ultimate, winking hubris, as if such a project could solve anyone’s else’s problems.

What would it mean or signify to deliver “the new Oliver Twist” anyway? The concept is only a little clearer than the eponymous refrain of “La Regle du Jeu,” which is the real name of Jean Renoir’s controversial 1939 dark-comedy-of-manners The Rules of the Game. The verses tell a story about nuptials marred by “a pig of a man who is slightly wasted” somewhere in “L’America,” an apropos concern for an album released in 2017. ken, despite the specificity of its scenes, never aims to be explicitly political, though there are amoral patriarchs and lotharios casting shadows across these songs, perhaps doing coke on the other side of some corny club. “You do as the Romans do,” repeated ad infinitum in “Rome” against shards of disco ball-chasing chicken-scratch guitar, rings out like a self-consciously empty aphorism–the kind of excuse you can use to justify anything.

There’s a bit in “In the Morning” about “bands [that] sing their songs and then…disappear,” which made me consider the way in which Destroyer songs feel both like spontaneous larks and something writ large and deliberately. The songs on ken, like so many on Kaputt, sound like they either could have emerged from some well-fleshed-out, deep-seated conceptual framework or been spun out from the first thing he recorded into his voice memos. Destroyer records are still charged with his career-long speech-effusive energy, and sound like Bejar is attempting to get it all out before it’s too late, or at least before he grows to hate it. ken’s short song lengths and unusually concise forms suggest that he was trying to capture the spark and contain it more efficiently.

Only repetition will clarify whether the oddball refrains and chintzy system-default pulsations that punctuate ken will provide as much room for repeated listens as much as Bejar’s other late-period works, or earlier modernist exegeses like Rubies or Notorious Lightning And Other Works. Bejar has been around long enough to trust himself to make oblique, prankish shifts in musical tone and lyrical ethos without losing himself or his audience. He’s either in competition with himself and no one—“off in the corner doing poet’s work,” as he sings on “Tinseltown”—but perhaps he doesn’t think of himself as enough of a fixed entity to feel any conflict. Increasingly, maybe we don’t either.