“I Heard That Someone Said It Before…”: On Ten Years of Kaputt and Dan Bejar’s Writing
I would love to have heard Kaputt as it existed in 2011: a warning shot that signaled the zeitgeist’s newfound fascination with ‘80s kitsch. Kaputt’s immense influence has somewhat blunted the force of these songs frontman Dan Bejar once described as “violently laid-back.” Instead, my introduction to the ‘80s sound resurgence came with Blood Orange, specifically 2013’s “You’re Not Good Enough”. Something in me recoiled; all the qualities I had been taught to appreciate as elements of “good” music were thrown out the window. Its sound was offensively inoffensive. I was so stuck on the apparent lack of innovation that I didn’t even notice how infectiously catchy it was–I shut it off without second thought. I’m sure that Kaputt was met with many similar responses but, coming to the album later than most, that was never a part of my experience with the album. Rather, I would know this album simply as what it’s always been: a collection of intricately pretty and entrancing songs.
If Kaputt’s instrumentation has lost some of its aesthetic audacity, what remains bold about the album–and Destroyer’s music as a whole–is Bejar’s writing. Listening to his lyrics is like gazing over someone’s shoulder into a shattered mirror: as a whole it tends to shy away from overt sense, yet its individual pieces reflect with startling clarity. His writing can be so characteristically difficult to decipher that “Crimson Tide”, opener to 2020’s Have We Met that was assembled using notes jotted down across a decade, doesn’t even register as a break from the material that came before it. Yet the fractured headiness of this material works to its advantage: you get out of it what you put in. The line “I walked in the room/ And was made sick by the room” (“Foolssong”) reminds me both of regretful interior decoration and visiting a deathbed. If these lines are pieces of a whole, Bejar lays them before us to move around as we please. That being said, an underlying feeling can usually be ascertained. Coming back to Kaputt, the title track taps into a nostalgia associated with music publication idolatry. “Blue Eyes” extracts the intimacy of browsing someone else’s bookshelf (take it from John Waters: “If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them!”). Despite the wordiness of these songs, they come across as improvised, as if Bejar had instrumentals made just so he could record himself spinning free-associations over them–which is more reason to admire the quality of the music across his discography. Bejar sings as if he’s directing his thoughts in real-time; some lines are inexplicably repeated once, twice, or eight times mid-verse, as if he’s still thinking up the next line, and a couple of lines on Have We Met barely even land before being speedily revoked. The result of this sleight of hand is a brand of intimacy that is wholly Bejar’s.
What makes these lyrics work and what ties them so well to their instrumentals is that voice. Bearing one of the most distinctive voices in rock, Bejar has seemingly explored every possible way it can be deployed. Bejar can at turns seethe and seduce, yelp and whisper, condescend and soothe. It was with Kaputt, though, that he focused his voice into a half-asleep murmur. “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker” sees Bejar issuing warnings in a manner so calm that it doubles as a lullaby. Perhaps what made Kaputt revolutionary was its capacity to challenge as it dozes. Bejar’s shift from leader of debauchery to detached spectator is exemplified in the cover art, a picture taken at Queen Elizabeth Park that sees a small group of people gazing out before the mountains that stand before them while Bejar sits to their left with his back to the scenery, seemingly taken with something outside the frame. The focal point of the image isn’t the group nor Bejar, but rather the space around, behind, and between them.
The self-deprecation in the title Kaputt makes me think of what this album represented upon its release, before I’d discover it: the smartest guy in alternative-indie puts his heart so wholly into the uncool that it implodes a whole genre’s set of values. Kaputt’s blast radius would either engulf Bejar’s career or reorient the blogosphere’s tastes. Yet for all its sonic reinvention, the title Kaputt seemingly rejects the notion of the album becoming any kind of musical manifesto. While such a move could be read as misanthropic, I take it as simple confidence; he welcomes us in but doesn’t need us. It’s easy to imagine that Bejar would be celebrating today regardless of reception and legacy; I’m just glad that we are too.