Dan Bejar’s lyrics feel bottomless. To be a Destroyer fan means to give up searching for the rhyme or reason to the Canadian’s impenetrable tangle of eccentric images and academic asides and accept that the riddle is more important than the solution. This gives his records a tremendous amount of replay value and means they often sound better the second time around, once you’ve become accustomed to their rugged terrain.
ken is the first album where we can see the method to Bejar’s madness, and as such it’s the first Destroyer album that actually sounds worse on repeat listenings. Rather than mystic parables, Bejar relies too often on cheap, ironic contrasts whose only purpose is irony and contrast. Rock’s most formidable intellectual is dumbing down.
A line like “come all you young revolutionary capitalists,” from “Sky’s Grey”, loses its usefulness once you realize capitalists can’t be revolutionary, and by listen two the lyric loses its spark and sits there like a stale piece of gum. Ditto “I can’t pay for this, all I’ve got is money.” Money’s what you use to pay for stuff—how clever. It doesn’t help that Bejar repeats this line incessantly, as if worried you won’t get it the first time around.
His lyrics don’t totally miss the mark. “Vancouver’s got a new Caligula, that’s cool” belongs in exhibit A of Destroyer lyrics because it uses a quick turn of phrase to distill the plot of the Destroyer project: the world’s gone to shit, Bejar sits back and sips his martini. But though “the groom’s in the gutter and the bride’s just pissed herself” communicates the same misanthropy, it’s less effective, relying on a facile contrast of elegance gone to seed. It’s like a kid singing a creepy nursery rhyme in a horror movie.
ken’s redeeming quality is its music. Bejar has a deft ear for funny little sounds: an uncanny voice-synth that appears at the peak of “Sometimes in the World” is one of the most gorgeous things I’ve heard on a Destroyer record. Guitarist Nicolas Bragg puts in good work, filling out “Tinseltown Swimming in Blood” with ghostly Robin Guthrie clamor and splashing the second half of “Sky’s Grey” with streaks of tremolo.
And Bejar himself is a charmer as usual, with his dilfy way of sounding like an aging glam doll reading the world’s most impenetrable bedtime story to his kid. If his heart’s not in the lyrics, he seems genuinely invested singing them; as he repeats the line “I’m working on the new Oliver Twist” on “Sky’s Grey,” he experiments delightfully with new ways to phrase it, stressing different syllables, flicking his “l’s” off the roof of his mouth.
But there’s so much here that just doesn’t sound like Bejar, including the superfluous punctuation of the title, which seems like the kind of fluffy pop-star affectation Bejar would sneer at. Why the lower case? To distinguish it from the doll, or the Lil B album?
It’s hard to say what went wrong here. Perhaps after the four-year drought between Kaputt and Poison Season his label wanted him to put something out fast. This would explain ken’s brevity (39 minutes, his shortest since 1998’s City of Daughters) and its alarming lack of inspiration. If Bejar splits from Merge for his next effort, we’ll know why.
I hope this is a one-time mishap and that Bejar’ll get back on track in time. But it’s distressing because Bejar’s missteps are usually musical rather than lyrical, like the obscene length of This Night. Usually, when a reliable act like Destroyer puts out a disappointment, you hold out for the next one. This is the kind that makes you want to go back and listen to his older stuff, if only to remind you he’s capable of wonders. C PLUS