Dan Bejar’s Latest Iteration
With ken, his twelfth studio release, Dan Bejar, frontman of Destroyer, reiterates his signature style of balancing elusiveness and accessibility—lyrically and sonically. He mines a cultural and aesthetic awareness to weave tapestries replete with Baudelairean revelations and Carlylean diagnoses regarding human nature, capitalism, and the proverbial decline of civilization. While his rhymes occasionally seem forced or clumsy, a listener familiar with Bejar’s oeuvre recognizes this technique as part and parcel of his satirical brand. Bejar’s voice on ken is as recognizable and well-enunciated as ever. In addition, the album highlights what might be Destroyer’s most confident instrumentation to date: the band blending the rock templates of Destroyer’s Rubies (2006), the effect-driven textures of Kaputt (2011), and the quasi-symphonic elements of Trouble in Dreams (2008) and Poison Season (2015).
The project opens: “Sky’s gray / Call for rain / Every day / You cancel the parade,” establishing the mood—T.S. Eliot’s objective correlative in action. Black Mountain’s Josh Wells, who also produced ken, adds drums to the mix, and the volume dramatically builds. Bejar continues, “Come one, come all dear young revolutionary capitalists / The groom’s in the gutter / And the bride just pissed herself,” transposing the perennial metaphor of groom and bride as tantamount to God and believer into nihilistic graffiti that would get a thumbs-up from Johnny Rotten. He concludes, “I’ve been working on the new Oliver Twist,” repeating the phrase multiple times; in the process, aptly employing the longstanding literary device of alternately establishing and undermining the credibility of a narrator or persona.
In “Saw You at the Hospital,” Bejar sings, “Saw you at the castle / Your eyes were clearly insane / And your robes undone,” making fertile use of austere and singular images. He then varies the details: “Saw you at the hospital / Your mind was on fire / Your gowns were falling down.” Each time a new permutation on the motif is offered, the listener is drawn more fully into a nonlinear rendering, a kaleidoscopic portraiture or narrative palimpsest. Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue” and Ryan Adams’s “Strawberry Wine” come to mind as immediate comparisons, though some listeners may also be reminded of Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1 and Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life, novels that explore the notion of alternate but overlapping realities, characters experiencing multiple lives concurrently.
“A Light Travels Down the Catwalk” opens with a campy note that conjures the soundtrack to a B-movie, perhaps 1961’s The Pit and the Pendulum starring Vincent Price. The note quickly turns metallic and industrial, an intriguing cacophony swelling to support Bejar’s lyrical opening: “Strike an empty pose / A pose is always empty.” Bejar considers the inseparability of life and performance, true self and ego, his lyrics functioning as impressionistic observations pinned to a roiling soundscape. The gradual disintegration of the music into sinister ambience complements Bejar’s snarky vocal. One can imagine William Burroughs reciting this piece, accompanied by Kurt Cobain on feedback-drenched guitar and an alt-jazzy piano part courtesy of Diamanda Galás.
In “Rome,” Bejar repeats the phrase “you’re dead” ad absurdum, forging a ghostly mix. This is Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights or Picasso’s Guernica translated into song. Bejar plays with the cliché “You do as Romans do,” creating a de facto chorus line. The track ends with Joseph Shabason’s lone saxophone, a hackneyed metaphor for loneliness and a reference to the golden days and chintzy formulae of Hollywood (another of Bejar’s favorite subjects). Given the tone and meta-commentary of the song and album, however, the usage works, underscoring how, in a commodified world life is inevitably reduced to clichés. Bejar delivers the track’s haunting final note with, it seems, tongue in cheek.
The final track, “La Regle du Jeu,” a shout-out to Jean Renoir’s 1939 comedy of manners, offers a memorable closing, Bejar riffing on the film’s situations, characters, and plot. A narcotized vibe is invoked and sustained through musical passages that reflect the disparate but integrated influences of Kraftwerk, the Cure, and Steely Dan, Bejar operating much like a poet working on the page, a central image or inspiration serving as a prompt for unhampered exploration into the transcendent qualities of poetry, meaning, and sound.
With ken, Bejar ushers a listener into lingering trances rather than offering a parade of hummable choruses. But that has been Bejar’s stylistic trajectory going back to his pre-Merge releases. As suggested above, the striking breakthrough on the album occurs in the domain of musicianship, the band segueing from rollicking rhythms to volatile soundscapes, from maximalist to minimalist productions with unprecedented ease and continuity, a development akin to The National’s musical leap on Sleep Well Beast, released earlier this year. That said, ken certainly reaffirms Bejar as a distinct and still-ambitious songwriter, vocalist, and band leader. He’s living and working in his own beautiful world, quirky as it may be.
John Amen is the author of five collections of poetry, including Illusion of an Overwhelm, a finalist for the 2018 Brockman-Campbell Award. He founded and edits Pedestal Magazine.
New WorldsBy Allison Glenn
JUNE 2023 | Editor's Message
Ive been thinking a lot about new worlds recently, and how to build a career that is deeply aligned with people and organizations actively engaged with sustainable, caring, supportive, expansive, collaborative practices. As I pen this essay, Im on my way to installation for Counterpublic Triennial 2023. Had I not been working as a co-curator of the 2023 iteration during the past two-plus years, I might have begun to question my place in the art world. I doubt that Im alone in this introspection.
Pat Steir: Paintings, Part IIBy David Rhodes
SEPT 2022 | ArtSeen
After arriving at the gallery, located on the Via Francesco Crispi, a short walk downhill from Berninis Palazzo Barberini, I needed a few seconds for my eyes to adjust after the August sunlight outside. Then, the full subtlety and clear radiance of these cool, austere paintings had full effect. This second iteration of a two-part summer exhibition by Pat Steir comprised eight paintingssix predominantly red, yellow, and blue on black and two white on black.
Third Horizon Film Festival 2022By Marius Hrdy
OCT 2022 | Film
Third Horizon Film Festival, in its sixth iteration this year, is a leader in the exhibition and discussion of filmmaking and other works about the Caribbean. The 2022 festival's overarching theme was to uncover film practices probing alternative memory, subjectivities, and non-linear time structures.
Bush Tetras Reemerge at ElsewhereBy Dan Joseph
JUL-AUG 2022 | Music
By most measures, Bush Tetras are not an emerging outfit. Formed in 1979 in Lower Manhattan, the original iteration of the band lasted only three years. During that time, they helped pioneer a hugely influential style of dance-oriented post-punk, sometimes described as mutant disco, that simultaneously emerged on both sides of the Atlantic.