Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week's album is ken, the new album from Destroyer.
Swearing in a song is a unique art form. Come too weak and your f-bomb lands unconvincing; too heavy and you sound more angry than pointed. It’s a fine line, and very few walk it finer than Dan Bejar, known more prominently as Destroyer. The Canadian poet-musician, who’s played with New Pornographers and Swan Lake, has spent his solo career mastering the fine art of the curse word; scattering profanities throughout his evocative, highly literate storytelling. The subtle use of profanities—knowing exactly when to use them so that they never grow stale—is only one part of Bejar’s pop perfectionism. In recent years, he’s turned his records into breeding grounds for disconnected ideas and thematic dissonance. The through line that courses through his work is shakier than ever. ken, his latest LP, is perhaps his most diverse collection of songs yet; shifting from moment to moment, capturing the ecstasy of the unexpected at every turn.
Bejar’s debut LP, Streethawk: A Seduction is his best David Bowie impression, while 2004’s Your Blues sounds like Charlie Kelly’s Nightman Cometh opera with all the self-awareness the Always Sunny character lacks. Your Blues’ full-length follow up, Destroyer’s Rubies, was the gem of his discography to that point, blending crunchy electric guitars with a subtle, emotional undercurrent. 2011’s Kaputt became the moment we realized what Bejar knew all along: The dude had—and still has—no interest in making the same record twice.
Four years after Kaputt, Bejar came through with Poison Season (released in 2015), an album that flew under the radar but became the strongest amalgamation of the shift in Destroyer’s sound. It plays like a Bruce Springsteen record if Springsteen’s characters were novelistic sketches instead of working class Americans. The saxophones, so smooth and subtle on Kaputt, wail like the ghost of Clarence Clemons here (see: “Dream Lover”). All of these moments from album to album, seemingly disparate, actually offer clues as to where Bejar is headed next. On initial listen, ken, is an oddball misfit, just like each of its predecessors. But after the album’s ‘80s synth pop jams and acoustic guitar ballads begin to coalesce, it becomes clear that Bejar is able to change style so often because the underlying core of his songwriting style is consistently unparalleled.
“Give up acting? Fuck no!/ I’m just starting to get the good parts,” Bejar deadpans during the introduction of the album’s first track, “Sky’s Grey.” There’s a biting sarcasm to these words, but Bejar always takes what he says seriously. To do so any other way, while delivering these scathing portraits of excess and vanity, would come across as excessive and vain as well. The song swells with abstract synths and twitching percussion before slowly morphing into an anthemic ballad, with unabashedly huge drum fills and a sky-reaching guitar solo. “Tinseltown Swimming in Blood” sounds like a lost cut from the Drive soundtrack, with those bouncy synths trapping Bejar’s voice in a suffocating frame before slowly expanding—big, sweeping chords revealing a greater world; an escape from Tinseltown, perhaps, just two songs after an adamant refusal to go: “Fuck no!” “I was a dreamer/ Watch me leave,” he sings.
“Saw You At The Hospital” is an ode to Bejar’s early days—the Destroyer’s Rubies style of writing that played heavily with acoustic guitar and story building lyricism. “Your silhouette says I’m not there yet/ But soon I’m gonna be/ Free at last,” he sings. Accented by a gorgeous piano line, “Saw You At The Hospital” is one of ken’s most breathtaking moments. “Sometimes in the World” veers from a distorted cascade of guitar tones to stripped down synth pop, the starry chords all the more comedic when pushed up against the feedback of Bejar’s wall of sound.
This moment highlights what makes ken, and all of Destroyer’s work, for that matter, so interesting, engaging, and wonderful. The only constant from album to album, song to song, is that there is no constant. His musical landscape is so shifty, so uninterested in a unified sound, that each song stands alone in its own universe. Album closer “La Regle du Jeu” is ripped straight from a New York nightclub, after too many hours of dancing to disco and one too many bumps of coke. It’s eerie, a little haunted, full of joy, and unlike anything else on ken.
With his latest LP, Dan Bejar remains one of our greatest curiosities, one of the world’s finest songwriters; tethering together loose concoctions with romantic ballast and tongue-in-cheek poetry. He’s unlike any other songwriter, yet his unpredictability has led to a certain familiarity; a comfort in the unknown. Being able to land the perfect ‘Fuck no!’ doesn’t hurt, either.
Will Schube is a filmmaker and freelance writer based in Austin, TX. When he's not making movies or writing about music, he's training to become the first NHL player with no professional hockey experience whatsoever.