Smile Politely

I heard your record. It’s alright.

Kaputt reads to me like a joke that Dan Bejar admits upfront is neither funny, nor sad.

The Vancouver songwriter, occasional New Pornographer, and rightful birth name of Destroyer is set to release his ninth studio album, the aforesaid Kaputt, in a week.

And the results, a foray into a dream-consciousness world — at least that’s what the other critics seem to think — unapologetically mixes Bejar’s noteworthy mumbly spaciness with soft jazz vibes and some slo-mo disco. It also contains the requisite multitude of every-which-way-including-the-self lyrical references the indie-pop songwriter has made into a sort of heavy-hitter trademark.

The catch seems to be that this lyrical complexity is built around some premises that could damn this album entirely for the easily bored or already disheartened. To wit, from some fragmented grains of promotional copy sent along with the album itself, these are “themes ‘alluded to or avoided'” and they are, “The hopelessness of the future of music…The pointlessness of writing songs for today…V-drums…The superiority of poetry and plays…And what’s to become of film?”

Riddling the album are further defeatist lyrics: “You send me your coffin of roses. I guess that’s the way things go these days,” from “Blue Eyes,” and, most pointedly, from “Savage Night at the Opera,” come the stingers, “Yes, I’m familiar with your scene,” “Hey, infinite sense of value,” and the pinnacle of the half-assed, and yet more damaging for the lack of effort, burn, “I heard your record. It’s alright.”

The cynical part of me wants to believe that this is the joke. Well-crafted lyrics about music that isn’t mediocre, but inspires no sort of visceral response, and that this is the endeavor Bejar has undertook to perform.

The music is well-put-together, and the obvious product of talent from somebody borrowing elements of unexpected genres. Exactly the stuff that should mark a musical pioneer for greatness. The only problem is when they’re borrowing from unexpected genres that just suck.

This is a question of taste, but to me the horns on this album came off as a mix between Chicago’s 93.9 FM and my dentist’s office. But then again, I don’t have the taste for smooth jazz, and I never have. Why did I sign on to review this record, then? Because I had no clue this would be on here. Blindsided.

In time, and upon further repeated listens, this might be the stuff that makes me start cultivating new tastes. The power here rests mainly on the awesome ambient textures emerging from the two-minute intro to “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker” and the eleven-plus-minutes entirety of “Bay of Pigs (Detail).”

For me, the problem is just that this album doesn’t make me want to care about it enough in its entirety to let it grow. I’m never convinced that the payoff will be worth it. The soft jazz sacrifices tight rhythm sections and alluring synth melodies left and right, especially “Poor in Love” and “Downtown.” When you think we’re about to let loose and party on “Opera” following the abrupt a capella delivery of, “Set the loop and go wild,” you get a fleeting glimpse of what would have been given full, glorious, cathartic reign on Rubies. There are no notable moments of artistic abandon or delicious distortion to ground this album and so it gambles too much space on the record with one trick.

What winds up happening is that Bejar seems content to bathe in the “hopelessness of the future of music” and seldom if ever make the case for the vitality of his own recording. For that reason it may be well-crafted, hell, it may even be genius, but the veneer is so frustratingly impermeable.

This is music that, most often, does not appeal to me on a physical or emotional level, and it seems damn hard to enjoy this music on the intellectual level it demands when it’s hopeful, solid, sexy roots are clouded over by the most processed and homogenized sounds known to contemporary pop music.

A different mix of this album could have been all the brilliance I wanted. But screw that. Quoth the bard, “I write poetry for myself.” (“Blue Eyes”)

On the other hand, the title track blossoms completely when complemented with the visual aid it’s given here:

Maybe that’s the joke? Borrowing so heavily from the MTV generation that the songs are most fully realized in a medium off the album and on the TV, or in today’s case, the interwebs. I don’t know. I give up.

To the SP Community: I tried really hard to love this record, if you couldn’t tell. This is the one “negative” review I doubt you’ll quibble with, though.

…I hope that didn’t come across as a dare.

Listen for yourself here.

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