Dan Bejar dreams of the 80s and still sounds cranky
by Jericho Cerrona
No one sounds quite like Dan Bejar. To say he's an original is an understatement, even as the music he's conjured as Destroyer over the past two decades never hides its undeniable influences, which include David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Van Dyke Parks, and Leonard Cohen, among others. Collaborations with The New Pornographers, Frog Eyes, and indie supergroup Swan Lake have further added to his mystique as one of the most mercurial of singer-songwriters. His last record, 2015's Poison Season, was a surprisingly accessible mixture of Easy Listening pop which channeled both Hunky Dory-phase Bowie as well as Frank Sinatra. At the time, the album felt like a direct response to the critical success of 2011's 80s-influenced jazz rock opus Kaputt; this time using piano, bongos, lush strings, and Bejar's hippie musings to showcase a more relaxed side of the enigmatic frontman. The results were predictably expansive, but also intimate; coming off like the sound of a man reaching for empathy existing just outside his grasp.
With Ken, Bejar goes back to the sounds of the late 1980's British music scene and creates something which initially feels like Kaputt Pt.2, but in actuality, is going more for a New Order/The Jesus & the Mary Chain/ The Cure type of vibe. If anything, Ken is aimed squarely at the converted. Since Bejar comes across as downtrodden as ever, those who may have found his odd vocal delivery off-putting in the past will find little to latch onto here. There's theatricality, excess, and even musical adventurousness all over Ken, but the man creates the sensation of someone looking back on a lost time with ironic distance. Opener "Sky's Grey", for example, links the sociopolitical tensions of the Thatcher era with lines like Bombs in the city/Plays in the sticks and I've been working on the new Oliver Twist over soothing piano, digital blips, and melancholy synth washes. It feels like a distillation of everything Destroyer has done creatively up until this point; a collision of intellectual concerns wrapped in a sad/pretty sonic package. Is Bejar really the alienated poet, too disinterested to muster up answers for the horrors of our times, or is he still just playing the part of cranky uncle?
Whatever the case, Ken isn't all doom and gloom. Though initially a track like "In The Morning" seems like a straightforward homage to Robert Smith; complete with thumping drums, Disintegration-esque guitar leads, and airy synths, it transforms via Bejar's playful vocals. Somehow, he even manages lines like A death star in bloom/ Another thought in the incinerator/ You wanted it to be cool/ Oh you thought it would be alright/ In the morning without coming across overly twee. Meanwhile, the electro-pop of "Tinseltown Swimming in Blood" has the veneer of a New Order cut, but Bejar shrugs off the will to dance by lamenting I couldn’t see, I was blind/ Off in the corner, doing poet’s work. Certainly, part of Bejar's appeal is his sleazy, faux-romanticism. The constant use of wandering saxophones points to this near-camp aesthetic, as does visual representations of smoking under foggy lampposts, cool black trench coats, and tales of lonely poets. However, though Ken certainly tilts toward corniness, Bejar's strengths as a songwriter gives everything a neurotic energy.
To say Ken is far from Destroyer's best work is damning with faint praise, since Bejar's output has been consistently sublime. The poignant wordplay is on display, as is the flowery prose, and there's gothic new wave style here too, but overall, the album is less than the sum of its parts. Truthfully, the recurring motifs; both lyrically and musically, seem to indicate a sense of catharsis found in cycles. Much like Bejar's exploration of different sounds and textures throughout his extraordinary career, these cycles hint at something darker and more oppressive at the edges of his music. Of course, he may simply be winking from behind rambling non-sequiturs and jangly production. The failure of Ken is that the line between irony and self-importance feels unresolved at best, while the album's strength lies in the mystery surrounding that very thing. Ultimately, Bejar would rather strike an empty pose, since as he puts it in his uniquely Dan Bejar way, A pose is always empty.