ALBUMS OF THE DECADE: Destroyer’s ‘Kaputt’

MMC Writers reflect on their favorite records of the 2010s.

There’s something so intensely evocative about the word kaputt.

In German, it stands for something destroyed, something ruined. It fizzles out with the same intensity of a broken bulb, leaving behind a darkness that seems inescapable and all-consuming. It brings with it an air of finality, one marred by an eternal longing for what could have been. A deep, unbearable emptiness finds itself buried within those two syllables, enveloping everything in its wake.

It’s the same sort of emptiness that Dan Bejar meanders in through the entirety of his ninth record as Destroyer, his greatest triumph in a career full of them. Kaputt is nothing short of an odyssey, a glorious drift through dazed, acerbic, post-apocalyptic witticisms from one of indie rock’s greatest songwriters of a generation operating on high gear.

Except, unlike records of Destroyer past, the most immediate thing on Kaputt isn’t even Bejar’s lyricism. Instead, it’s the sonic template, Bejar’s hardest left turn from his artsy brand of freak-folk since the MIDI collages of 2004’s Your Blues. The record sounds suave and sleazy, evoking a certain point in the ’80s where the sounds of coked-out, velvety-smooth jazz ruled the airwaves. Yet even in pulling from some of the most passé sounds of a bygone era, Kaputt‘s sonic decisions feel purposeful and powerful. With sumptuous synths, blocky percussion and swooning saxophone at work, the textures seem central to the songs, extensions of Bejar’s unspooling lyrical narratives.

What’s so remarkable about Kaputt is how well the record moves track-by-track, even with all the overarching themes and motifs present. The record toes the line between ambition and accessibility without effort, sounding mystic and beautiful at every turn. Even if “Chinatown” begins with an abstract bricolage of noises and percussion, it settles into a calm, trickling groove, with Bejar’s lonely croon finding company in Sibel Thrasher’s stunning pipes.

Thrasher’s presence is another brilliant addition to the record; her interplay with Bejar is gorgeous, and it never loses its charm. The two find a marvelous back and forth on the delectable “Blue Eyes,” especially on the “I won’t, and I never will” refrain. On the one-two punch of “Downtown” and “Song for America,” Thrasher belts through refrains left, right, and center, adding vibrant pops of color to Bejar’s greyscale apocalypses.

Bejar’s vocal antics, on the other hand, find themselves greatly toned down from previous works. There’s still a sense of bombast, but the yelps seem to take a backseat to chilly, tossed-off nonchalance (he apparently recorded most of his takes while fixing a sandwich).

Of course, he crams a few la-da-da’s here and there, most notably in the steadily pulsing “Savage Night at the Opera.” He approaches an honest-to-god croon on “Poor in Love,” cramming in a few references to “We Built This City,” of all things. As the stunning title track proves, Bejar’s still a relentlessly evocative singer when he wants to be, wistfully listing off music magazines over glimmering synths and wailing saxophones. “Kaputt” is a stunningly beautiful track, a perfect paradoxical balance that mocks and shows contempt for the hedonism it gleefully revels in.

Listening to Kaputt, I find that it’s easy to split the record into two halves. These halves find themselves bookended by the outer realms of Bejar’s ambition, some of the boldest statements he’s set to tape. The first half ends with Side A’s closer, the marvelous 8-minute “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker.” Co-written with the beloved contemporary artist in the title, the song, a poignantly bracing exploration of race in America that floats from the works of Ralph Ellison to the North Star, seems to dissipate in the air. It feels like levitating, a trip through a dream state filled with heavenly flutes, chimes and acidic guitar squalls.

On the other side is the closer, “Bay if Pigs (Detail),” a truly towering piece of music, and one of the most daringly beautiful works of Bejar’s career. The song takes the dazed, wistful allure of the Destroyer act and pushes it to its furthest extreme: an 11-minute ambient-disco number that unwinds itself into a marvelous, self-contained universe.

Building slowly from an astral drone, it finds itself enveloped in fluttering synths, as tranquil as the darkness that Bejar finds himself sitting in. After five gripping minutes of build-up, the song finally teases a blissful release, pulling away the kick drum one last time before finally letting loose. With washes of synth, classical guitar and an endlessly engrossing groove, the song turns into this magnificent dance floor burner, one that’s wide-eyed, awestruck and ever-so-nostalgic. A surreal, vivid and neverendingly self-referential epic, it’s only fitting that Bejar saved his best for last.

Every time I think about how to analyze a record like Kaputt, a lyric from “Bay of Pigs” jumps out at me. To paraphrase a bit, it’s a line about how we could travel to the ends of the Earth, in search of the “conclusion of the world’s inutterable secret,” and then shut our mouths when we find it.

Maybe Kaputt was made to represent this travel, this search for meaning. Maybe it represents the conclusion itself, Bejar’s answer to our endless probing. Maybe it means nothing at all. Regardless, we should all be grateful for a record like Kaputt, a masterpiece that exudes cosmic wisdom from every heavenly note.