Release Date: Oct 20, 2017
Record label: Merge
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
On Kaputt, Bejar swung Destroyer for a soft rock left turn that gave depth to his eccentric perspective by placing it in a new context. In the process he created the album of the millennium. Then Bejar said he didn't feel comfortable singing in English anymore and we got Five Spanish Songs, an EP of Sr. Chinarro covers that, in its interpretations of the originals, veered swiftly from disco to stadium rock.
Dan Bejar's Destroyer project shows no signs of fizzling out, despite now being well into its second decade, with ken becoming the prolific Canadian's 12th studio album to date. Named after the original title given to Suede's The Wild Ones from 1994 for no specific reason other than Bejar finding the fact intriguing, the collection's 11 tracks largely resonate with the 1980s rather than the 1990s, a time when Bejar was becoming intoxicated with music. "These were the years when music first really came at me like a sickness," he claims, as a fascination with Margaret Thatcher's Britain also piqued interest.
At this point, Dan Bejar may as well be an institution. Consistently producing fine music for more than twenty years (fans: feeling old yet?) now, whether as Destroyer, an integral revolving portion of The New Pornographers, or his numerous other side projects and collaborations, the man is nothing if not a fixture. A constant, if you will. If his previous outing with his primary vehicle, Poison Season, went by a tad underrated and underloved, it's surely a simple byproduct of his dogged, untarnished permanence.
There's a problem inherent to being one of the most consistently great songwriters around: people get used to it, and they expect more than is fair. Dan Bejar, the creative force behind Destroyer has been on a roll for years now… 17 of them to be precise. Every one of the eight Destroyer records since 2000's Thief has been somewhere on the scale between 'excellent' and 'near-perfect'.
Throughout his career, Destroyer’s Dan Bejar has borrowed titles from other people’s songs for his own work. His eleventh studio album follows suit - ‘ken’ takes its name from the working title of Suede’s ‘The Wild Ones’. But where that was a swooping, crooned ballad, Dan's latest is crisper, more experimental.
I n almost two decades fronting Destroyer, New Pornographers founder Dan Bejar has constantly switched styles, taking in everything from baroque pop to rampaging, Wizzard-style glam rock. His 12th album contains semi-acoustic strumming, hurtling shoegaze and shimmering Italian house, but mostly settles on a blissful, electronic pop sound that's often reminiscent of a hazier, more beatific Temptation-era New Order. Old analogue drum machines tick, synthesisers soar and Peter Hook-type basslines twang, most effectively on the sublime, memorably titled Tinseltown Swimming in Blood.
Dan Bejar's 11th Destroyer LP arrives six months after the New Pornographers released their first album without him (April 2017's Whiteout Conditions). Busy preparing his follow-up to 2015's Poison Season, the songwriter instead turned all attention to Ken. The title doesn't refer to a person, but rather the original title of the Suede classic "The Wild Ones." Bejar didn't offer much in the way of explanation for the choice other than that the 1994 song comes from a time "when music first really came at me like a sickness." Sparer than the epic Poison Season but still recorded with members of his band, if in a more piecemeal manner, Ken takes on a synth-heavy post-punk complexion.
Dan Bejar's complicated relationship with, and frequent subversion of, pop conventions has always been a defining aspect of his music. Destroyer's ken, though, showcases the most commercially appealing elements of Bejar's oeuvre--the 1980s nostalgia of Kaputt and the muscular power pop of his work with the New Pornographers--in an atypically concise, digestible package. It might be the first Destroyer album on which Bejar sounds anything less than begrudged about appealing to a contemporary pop audience.
Dan Bejar has been recording as Destroyer for over two decades, and each of his 12 full-length records feels uniquely unmoored in time: It's as if he's never been of any era, but merely adjacent to several, attentively noting the mores of the day from some vaguely aristocratic, martini-sipping remove. It makes sense, then, that ken, Destroyer's first new release since 2015's Poison Season, contains lessons, both musical and spiritual, about how history repeats itself--all the ways in which we are destined (or doomed) to fulfill old prophecies. Bejar named ken after the working title of Suede's "The Wild Ones," a tense and thrilling ballad first released in 1994 ("Oh, if you stay/We'll be the wild ones, running with the dogs today," Brett Anderson sings).
Destroyer has always been an incongruous name, the music hardly conjuring up a blast of hard rock. That was Dan Bejar's point, but there's something constantly overwhelming about his music. Especially as he continues to experiment and add new tricks, Bejar has a knack of filling every pocket of air, which he does again on his 12th studio album, ken.
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.
Y ou never know what to expect from Dan Bejar, whose albums as Destroyer range from balladry to art rock. Ken, the Canadian's 12th set, is informed by New Order in their 80s pomp, though Bejar's lyrics are cryptic and shot through with scorn. "The groom's in the gutter and the bride just pissed herself," he sings on the lofty opener, Sky's Grey, which starts slowly then grows menacing, its wintry riff energised by Bejar's sneery voice.
ken retains a similar spirit to Poison Season and Kaputt, with its mostly glossy, foggy presence, punctuated by the occasional brash guitar lick or uncanny horns, but there’s an almost gothic bleakness here that feels like a new preoccupation. From the opening lines of “Sky’s Grey,” we’re introduced to the barbiturate-laced, droning vocal delivery, ebbing in and out of the distance, that permeates much of the record. There’s a flatness throughout, a plodding malaise with the seeming intention of lulling or softly bludgeoning the listener with its persistence.
In retrospect, we can discern the seeds of this album's existence hiding in plain sight in Dan Bejar's discography, both as Destroyer and in other projects. From Kaputt's title track: "Sounds, Smash Hits, Melody Maker, NME, all sound like a dream to me." Or, from Destroyer's Rubies' 'Watercolours Into the Ocean': "Listening to 'Strawberry Wine' for the hundred and thirty-first time / It was 1987, it was spring, it's 1987 all the time." Or the cover of New Order's 'Leave Me Alone' that Destroyer contributed to Mojo magazine's take on Power, Corruption and Lies. Or the recent firstname.lastname@example.org remix of standalone single 'My Mystery'.
Dan Bejar says his 12th full-length was inspired, however obliquely, by Suede's "The Wild Ones," the ballad a fascinating mix of restraint and full-blown drama, whose video shows the singer swaggering through tableaux of frozen celebrants, stopped in mid-expression of joy, surprise, toast. Bejar has always cultivated both emotion and remove, not quite sneering at the people and scenarios he surveys, but never fully participating either. Here against a clanking, booming, ultra-stylized new wave backing, he evokes grand Fellini-esque imagery with sardonic reserve.
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.
Dan Bejar’s lyrics feel bottomless. To be a Destroyer fan means to give up searching for the rhyme or reason to the Canadian’s impenetrable tangle of eccentric images and academic asides and accept that the riddle is more important than the solution. This gives his records a tremendous amount of replay value and means they often sound better the second time around, once you’ve become accustomed to their rugged terrain. ken is the first album where we can see the method to Bejar’s madness, and as such it’s the first Destroyer album that actually sounds worse on repeat listenings.