Destroyer: Kaputt – review

(Dead Oceans)

No one could ever accuse sometime New Pornographer Dan Bejar of following a linear career path with his Destroyer project. They began life in 1995 as the sort of acoustic post-Pavement outfit that released cassette-only albums with names such as Ideas for Songs. Over the next 16 years, Bejar has variously offered up fey, glammy art-rock in the image of David Bowie's Hunky Dory; epic balladry set to an electronic simulation of an orchestra; "ambient disco"; and avant garde electronica, with Bejar's florid lyrics the only linking factor.

Perhaps understandably, it's the kind of career path that forges devoted but small cult followings – after a while investigating Bejar's past, the phrase "Pitchfork awarded the album 7.8" begins to take on a mantra-like quality – but recently, Destroyer seem to have had a breakthrough. Their ninth studio album, Kaputt, made the US charts and was nominated for Canada's equivalent of a Mercury prize. It's odd, because in one sense it could be their most musically abstruse album to date: you really don't hear many records these days inspired by early-to-mid-80s progressive pop.

It was a loose sub-genre under which you might bracket Prefab Sprout's Swoon, Talk Talk at the point when Mark Hollis began the process of gradually unravelling the structures of his songs, The Flat Earth by Thomas Dolby, the slightly unsettling melding of sonic sumptuousness and etiolated small-hours melancholy found on Roxy Music's Avalon and David Sylvian's Brilliant Trees, among other albums. It did have certain sonic signifiers, all of which are present and correct on Kaputt: glossy production, the twang of the fretless bass, long songs, sax solos that signified both sophistication and perhaps a liking for jazz (or at least for Steely Dan), and a dose of floaty synthesised ambience. It is largely unrevived, even at a time when virtually every other aspect of 80s pop has been raided for inspiration. Its studio-bound, high-concept slickness seems to jar with current musical trends, which may explain the distinct hint of critical bemusement with which Kaputt's appearance was greeted: even a reviewer who loved it called it "one of the most indefensible albums of all time".

Of course, if you record a self-conscious homage to a willfully unfashionable genre, sing it in a mannered, faux-English accent and pack the lyrics with knowing allusions to 80s pop culture from Yello to Smash Hits, you run the risk of creating an arid exercise in hipster posturing. Yet Kaputt swerves accusations of archness or kitsch. That's partly because the songs are so strong. Even in the cassette-only days, Bejar was never a stranger to a pop melody, although his skill in that area is probably a little easier to discern here than on, say, Destroyer's 2005 collaboration with yelping "avant-guitarists" Frog Eyes. You could argue that there's something at best pointless and at worst a bit pretentious about Savage Night at the Opera's knowing recreation of the sound of Low-life-era New Order, but equally, it's hard to remain stern in the face of such a beguiling tune.

Mostly however, it's because the album sounds so utterly heartfelt. Bejar has claimed he "has no idea what the lyrics of Kaputt pertain to", and occasionally you're forced to concede his point. Anyone who can work out what he's driving at in Suicide Demo for Kara Walker or the closing Bay of Pigs (Detail) probably deserves a small cash prize. That doesn't make them any less wonderful – one's lovely and flecked with flute, and the other's a heady, hallucinogenic 11-minute ambient drift. But Kapputt's greatest moments come when it sounds like an album about being a certain kind of music fan, long rendered extinct by the internet and 360-degree connectivity: isolated from the music you love by youth or geography or both, existing on whatever snippets of information you can find in the music press.

Blue Eyes seems to be an alternately affectionate and wry portrayal of a solitary teenage music obsessive, "a permanent figure of jacked-up sorrow", big on New Order and writing poetry, convinced no one understands him: "They all had it in for me." The gorgeous title track features a fan languorously imagining what the distant life of a rock star might be like. "Wasting your days, chasing some girls, chasing cocaine," sings Bejar, who adds a litany of largely British music press titles: "Sounds, Smash Hits, Melody Maker, NME, all sound like a dream to me." At moments like that, Kaputt feels like an open love letter to a vanished pop era: it's unique and warm and beautiful, as love letters are supposed to be.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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