Merge Records · October 20, 2017
What started as a home-recording project in 1995 turned into indie-rock band, Destroyer has been busy producing and making music since its inception. In the last twenty or so years, Destroyer has become a big name in the New Romantic genre, perhaps because they strive to change and transform with every release, or as frontman Dan Bejar put it, “to start from scratch every time.” To describe the process of making the new album, ken Bejar summed it up to Pitchfork with one question: “How could a decrepit-sounding voice sing in a dark, New Romantic world?”
ken, in its own eccentric way, manages to answer this question, and does it with variety. An album where songs like the brooding, dark and synthetic ‘A Light Travels Down the Catwalk,’ and the upbeat and campy ‘Cover from the Sun’ can coexist neatly is not an easy feat.
The album’s opener, ‘Sky’s Grey,’ starts with a quiet urgency. The juxtaposition between an anxiety-inducing drumbeat and Bejar’s deep voice is almost unsettling, but as the song progresses and you get a guitar and a keyboard, the sound comes together, and the song finds its best form. The first seven times I listened to this song, with Bejar’s voice reverberating about Oliver Twist in my ears like a broken record, I couldn’t wait for it to be over. And then, on the eighth listen, the weirdest thing happened: I stopped and asked myself, “Is it possible I am enjoying this song?”
ken is a weird album, in the sense that you have to go into it seeing it as an investment. You have to give the songs a couple listens, and come back to them over time, and somehow, they’ll go from sounding like a bunch of meaningless monotone melodies to unusual and almost mysterious arrangements. The more you learn about each song, the more interesting they become.
Take ‘In The Morning,’ the second song in the album and one of the few tracks that’s on the more upbeat side. At first, it evokes such strong ’80s vibes, I can’t help but imagine this as the soundtrack to a slightly darker Sixteen Candles. Its lyrics are almost cryptic but its theme about an inevitable end is clear: “You wanted it to be good / Yeah you thought that it would be ok / A death star in bloom / Another thought in the incinerator.” It turns out this song is about bands coming to an end. Bejar himself described the song as him saying, “Hey bands, you should embrace this dance with death. Don’t fool yourselves. You will be gone soon.” That’s why it goes, “Bands sing their songs and then disappear into the rhythm of the night.”
When it comes to the lyrics, there are two types that are pretty concurrent throughout. On one hand, they point at an unknown fictional character. ‘Sky’s Grey’ paints the scene of someone toiling away in the arts: “Give up acting? Fuck no! / I’m just starting to get the good parts [..] I’ve been working on the Oliver Twist,” and ‘Ivory Coast’ is narrated by “miserable pirates — the down-and-out, sad mercenary,” according to Bejar. On the other hand, there’s the direct lyrics, the ones that are talking to the listener, whether they be advice (“Stay lost / It’s an illusion / Being alone’s an illusion”) or stating a reality (“Sometimes in the world the thing that you love dies / And you cry and you cry and cry / Sometimes in the world you turn your back on it”). This proves Destroyer’s strong ability to craft lyrics that at first seem superficial, but paired with the synthetic sound of ken, manage to go deeper than you imagined.
So will you enjoy this album? Well, do you like New Romantic? Have you been following Destroyer since their earlier albums, at the very least 2015’s Poison? If the answer is no, do you have time to give this album several listens? If so, then this could potentially be a genuinely good listening experience. I really believe that this is an album where you have to earn your appreciation for it. The first time I gave it a listen, I couldn’t believe how dull the experience was, mostly because it got so many raving reviews. Pitchfork called Bejar “one of the most evocative songwriters of his generation,” and then Spin called him “the smartest and possibly drunkest guest at the party.” Which makes me think, maybe I was supposed to listen to this album drunk. Regardless, if you stick with it, invest your time and ears, these headlines will make sense, and ken by Destroyer will be a good time, no alcohol required.
Listen to Ken here: