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.