Destroyer has been the main vehicle for Dan Bejar’s output for over two decades. When he released Kaputt in 2011, it gave Destroyer a whole new audience. The music was drenched in 80s sophisti-pop (Avalon, Tango In The Night, Prefab Sprout etc) and was ambitious in its scope. It was gloriously executed and remains one of the perfect records of the decade. 2015’s Poison Season was another set of sharp songs that continued that wasn’t as polished, and the soft pop/rock influences had been substituted for 70s singer-songwriters, jazz flourishes and lavish string arrangements. For the quickly recorded follow-up, ken, Bejar has touched on a darker version of the 80s influences of Kaputt. This time he’s focusing on New Order, and lots of it. At times it works, and at times it feels rushed and unsatisfying.
ken takes its title from the demo of Suede’s ‘The Wild Ones’, a song that Bejar quite rightly describes as one of the greatest love songs of the 20th century. He aims for that kind of beauty on ‘Sky’s Grey’ — which is easily the best song here. After two minutes building the tension with minimal atmospheric instrumentation, an exciting deep-synth line appears. The rhythm is underscored by the first traces of New Order in the guitars and main synths. Kaputt was an addictive listen because of the juxtaposition of Bejar’s rough vocals and repetitious wordplay and the slick music . The quick repetition of, “I’ve been working on the new Oliver Twist” gives the same feeling of the endless highs of Kaputt. It keeps the slick production too.
The guitars are heavier and more prominent on ‘In The Morning’, which follows. New Order synths and bass appear again with some added Cure in the song’s downbeat nature. One of the album’s strongesr choruses is, “you wanted it to be cool, I thought that it would be alright in the morning”. On the second single, ‘Tinseltown Swimming In Blood’. the New Order influences are glaringly obvious again, and it starts to wear thin. The repetition of “I was a dreamer, watch me leap” in the middle eight stops it from being totally throwaway, but there’s a lack of ambition that wouldn’t have been allowed on his last two records. ‘Savage Night At The Opera’ did this a lot better.
The simple acoustic beauty of, ‘Saw You At The Hospital’ signals a much-needed changed in tone. His storytelling and gift for imagery is on fine form as he sings, “Saw you at the hospital, your mind was on fire, your gowns were falling down. Well it’s a scene, at least we think so, says the amplifiers to the snow”. ‘A Light Travels Down The Catwalk’ is equally evocative with droning keyboards and a walking beat that adds to Bejar’s dream-like lyrics. ‘La Regle Du Jeu’ is a solid closer that mixes 90s house keyboards with Johnny Marr-esque guitars. Songs like these regain the adventurous spirit of his best work.
Disappointingly, the second half is forgettable, apart from, ‘La Regle Du Jeu’,. ‘Rome’ doesn’t justify its length and the sax that appears (a common musical theme for Kaputt) sounds like an afterthought. ‘Sometimes In The World’ aims for Power, Corruption & Lies, but is about as memorable as Lost Sirens. ‘Ivory Coast’ and ‘Stay Lost’ leave no impression at all. It’s frustrating because you can feel that there are good ideas that just needed fleshing out. On his last two releases the production was essential to the album’s themes, here it masks thin songwriting.
After making epic records, it’s admirable that Bejar has fashioned a 39 minute album where he’s tried to simplify the essence of what made Kaputt so brilliant. Sadly, half of the album sounds like he’s on autopilot and despite trying to make ken a concise listen, it drags. There are glimpses of what makes Bejar a talented songwriter and arranger, but these moments don’t outweigh the parts where he sounds uninspired. ken is one of the year’s biggest disappointments from someone capable of much more.