Friday, October 27, 2017

album review: 'ken' by destroyer

It's hard to talk about Dan Bejar's work as Destroyer. Not just for its sheer diversity of tones and sounds that have flipped through a dozen different genres over the decades, but also because getting a grip on his writing... well, most people don't. Hell, even with every listen to his records I don't quite feel I always get his turns of phrase, and I've struggled to articulate why that is. Even on songs where he does get more direct - and there's been less and less of that with his work in the 2010s - the implications and subtext of his work often linger longer than the actual text, sometimes picking up enough of a foundation like in the cinematic swell and grounded themes of Poison Season, but other times... look, I like Kaputt, but that record can get lost in its own slick 80s-inspired sophisti-pop atmosphere, and I often find myself going back to the more grounded but still potent Thief, or Streethawk: A Seduction, or my personal favourite, the melodically stunning Your Blues.

But one tone I've always felt can be hit-and-miss for Dan Bejar was instability, mostly because I've always found him most compelling at his most refined and measured and emotionally expressive, where you can tell the structure reinforces and propels the emotional transcendence that his most poetic lines and delivery can hit. Without that structure, you get records like Trouble In Dreams and This Night, frequently compelling but messy in a way that gives you the suspicious feeling Bejar might be trolling his audience - and even if he swears he's not, it's not a feeling that goes away. Such was my concern with ken, which was reportedly scaling back from the grandiose power of Poison Season for something a little smaller and sleazier, with chill murky tones playing for noir but potentially tilting in over-stylized but conceptually underweight kitsch - in other words, the buzz was not exactly promising. But I wanted to dig into this for myself - Bejar is too good of a writer and too innovative a composer for me to not give this a chance, so what did I find in ken?

Okay, this was not what I was expecting - and it's one of those odd cases where I think much of the reviews and conversation about this record has not only missed the point but also somewhat mischaracterized the release, especially when you start digging into the themes and content. But I also can't really blame them - while ken is easily the most direct that Destroyer has been in some time, the tone of the writing and compositions seem to come from a place midway between The National's Sleep Well Beast, David Bowie's Blackstar, Nick Cave's 'Higgs Boson Blues', early-to-mid 80s records from The Cure, and - funnily enough - The New Pornographers' Whiteout Conditions, a project Dan Bejar couldn't work on because of this Destroyer album. Amusing how much they seem to fall in a similar headspace, and while I don't quite think Bejar quite matches the brilliance of 'We've Been Here Before' on any one track, overall this is a more bleak and potent listen.

And the most striking place to begin this conversation is with the production and instrumentation, which in contrast to the more lush mixes that characterized Kaputt or Poison Season, ken is heading in what many would deem a 'darker' direction. And when I say 'darker', while the guitar tones are rougher and the drum machines are more rigid and booming and the bass is more hollow and the synthesizers more alien, it never quite hits the point of true gothic blackness that characterized many of The Cure records that inspired this record... and in a sense that's the point. If you pay attention to the production it often has as much depth and space as Kaputt and Poison Season did, but the air has changed to something more damp and clammy, vocals close enough to imply intimacy but a mix cold enough to imply empty disconnection and alienation. Right from songs like 'Sky's Grey' the fizzy beats at the base of the mix skitter, and you can tell producer Josh Wells is toying with binaural progressions as the beats shift from left to right to left again, and that before the alien gurgles of synth crash through against lingering guitars - these are songs that are designed to make you feel uneasy in a subtle, unsteady way... and yet more often than not there is an unearthly sort of beauty here, as Bejar's commitment to melody cuts through. The saxophone lines on 'Tinseltown Swimming In Blood' and 'Rome' and 'Ivory Coast' are weedy, the bells tolling through 'A Light Travels Down The Catwalk' can be discordant, the spikes of smoldering guitar on 'Cover Form The Sun' and 'Somewhere In The World' might warp and contort against the steady grooves, the synths might shift into alien or atonal shifts... but there's an odd feeling of shimmering detachment that blunts some of the rougher edges, empathetic and conscious but never quite able to affect the change he might desire. And yet you still get a lot of instrumental moments I really love along the way: many of these songs are some of the shortest that Destroyer has ever delivered but they also still bring a pretty potent energy to the grimier riff on 'In The Morning' and 'Cover From The Sun' and 'Sometimes In The World', the thicker melodic bass and noisier simmer of 'Rome' and 'La Regle du Jeu', the acoustic touches on that last song and 'Saw You In The Hospital', and especially whenever those higher backing vocals come in at precisely the right time to emphasize that distant empathy, separated by calamity - or a border - between them.

Yeah, there's going to be no way around this to talk when we talk about the lyrics: while Dan Bejar has shied away from saying this album is explicitly political, it's hard not to read a lot of these tracks - especially 'La Regle due Jeu', which borrows its title from a French movie about a party days before World War II - as a response tonally or observation to the political climes south of the border, where we as Canadians are seeing the ever-unfolding slow-motion disaster and yet are unable to impact change or consequence. But Bejar is not one to immediately date his work with those sorts of references, and he's aiming for a remarkably focused higher concept here: exploring the emotional aftermath after such an event like what happened last year, with a particular focus on those artists who find their words ringing hollow. And as such, Destroyer blows right past the disconnected platitudes of Katy Perry or even what The National did on Sleep Well Beast, where it was clear much of the trauma was still too near, with enough distance to truly take in the broader scope. It's one reason why I made a comparison to Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds' epic 2013 track 'Higgs Boson Blues', where a world is confronted with an advance and change in knowledge that they can't possibly understand and Cave is a witness to the trauma playing out around him in a strange new world.

And this is, incidentally, is one of the reasons why I find a lot of people have completely missed the mark on interpretations of this record, calling it scattershot or drawing comparisons to David Lynch when in reality the marks of this trauma are all the more plain when placed in that context. The artists hoping to spark a worldwide change - love the imagery of a 'death star in bloom', so many great layers to that - find themselves fading off the stage into the rhythm of the night on 'In The Morning', and that metaphor of harsh truth presented by the sun continues forward on 'Cover From The Sun', and then you have the moments where said figures must find some vestige of routine again. After all, the world isn't going to stop turning, the boulevard of sinners is already filling up to watch you stride down the catwalk and strike an empty pose - another great metaphor as the artist is never completely representative of truth, but there is a fragment even when your heart's not in it anymore. It's also why I think any comparisons to noir also miss the mark - this is not a record aiming for the slinky or sexy side of goth, but the bleak numb reality of time's passage, where one disappears into another's bed as a way to escape the yawning emptiness, 'doing what Romans do', likely in the moments of empire before a coming fall, or beneath a Caligula archetype undeserving of the purple. And the artists realize that they can't pay the price to save others or disrupt... all they have is money, and they remain cogs in the larger system... but even cogs can disrupt the machine.

Now if all of this feels a tad too detached, potentially lacking in empathy for those who will not have the power to respond and have already suffered... well, Destroyer has already covered that. 'Tinseltown Swimming In Blood' might seem to fit in the same vein as 'In The Morning' in castigating plastic entertainment buckling under real trauma, but he also describes his dream in this verse: 'I had no feeling, I had no past / I was the Arctic, I was the vast / Spaces without reprieve'. A very Canadian metaphor, but an apt one: the disconnected creator writing poetry in the corner may contain multitudes... but nothing lives there. And you can see him trying to extend some form of empathy on 'Saw You At The Hospital', staring into the glassy eyes of trauma that might seem rambling or deranged... but while to him it's just a scene, to them it's all too real. That's what also makes 'Ivory Coast' cut so deeply, taking the perspective of the old mercenary from the outside, the perpetually detached feeling that resonated so deeply in Whiteout Conditions, and shows the quiet damnation to that one always on the outside - great things might come to those who wait forever and never engage, but it's also greatness that'll never be achieved. So you have to wonder if 'Stay Lost' is a message not just for the audience but also himself - coming to acceptance with the discomfort and feeling of abandoned loneliness... because on some level it's all an illusion. Your name is already in the book of the dead, so why not stay on the streets for that living? A moment of consolation before he looks south again and sees those who are 'wasted and slightly blinded', with men described as vulgar pigs... but not so blind as to not see. And as the cyclical nature emphasized throughout this record implies, eventually visions will become clear.

Folks, as much as I have praised this record - and make no mistake, it's easily one of the best of 2017 - it is a hard one to recommend, because again, it's not a record that designed to console or incite righteous anger or even wallow in abject nihilism. If anything it feels like the shock to the system those artists who have been wallowing in aftermath of 2016 desperately need, that disassembles arrogance, rips away blinders, and yet does it with the sort of quiet empathy that Dan Bejar has subtly mastered in order to continue on. As such, it is not designed to be a comfortable record, but the complicated realistic picture he paints can serve as an answer with the long view in mind. And if you can't tell, this is a 9/10 without question and absolutely a recommendation. Bejar said this album was inspired by an era where music hit him 'like a sickness', with his definition of the word 'ken' coming from both the original title of Suede's 'The Wild Ones' and also being 'to know'. With this record in facing the unknowable... I think Destroyer found answers they - and we - can accept.

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