As We Here: Destroyer, Kaputt (double-LP vinyl issue)

Jeff T. Johnson


You can’t believe / The widow was talking to the sea.

Nope. You can’t believe, it’s true, but what you can’t believe is The way the wind’s talking to the sea, if you can believe the lyric sheet. Once you look you can’t look away, and you’ve set a limit on sense. Did you know there’s an exclamation point in the line I write poetry for myself! I write poetry for myself…? You do now. Of course, you always knew the ellipsis was there, but Dan Bejar doesn’t insist on the exclam in his delivery. He’s way laid back from such emphasis, though he drenches every line with sighs. His vocalizations are so sibilant you might not catch how many times he repeats a line like Don’t be ashamed or disgusted with yourselves, just as you might lose track of its metamorphosis into I’ve thumbed through the books on your shelves. And just as you get a hankering to add it up, he takes the rest of the air out of the room (or puts it all back), releasing Blue Eyes… (again, you can hear the ellipsis as the song goes away).

The words are important to all those listeners with Destroyer embroidered on their jeans, those who habitually sign off with their current favorite Bejar bons mots, programming their signatures for repeat. Bejar himself pretends to care less, but his toss-offs are juicier than… Oh, but this paragraph is about ellipses. They’re all over the lyric sheet, flaunting bad habit in poetry. Delivery is another matter. The ellipses don’t so much signify a trailing off before the point is made as they score those articulated exhalations at the ends of so many lines. Enter through the exit and exit through the entrance. No need for ellipsis there because ellipsis is there described. If most lyric sheets disappoint because they banalize the vocals, Kaputt’s sheet is a fair representation—or recollection—of what goes on on the album.

What the lyric sheet can’t capture is just as elusive on the sound track. “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker” is intermittently backed by a funk guitar line, a mistake from another era that manages to work here, along with the disco flourishes and rolling drum breaks. (According to Bejar, the song reminds him of Suicide, and it certainly carries some of the synth duo’s fuck-it iconoclastic messthetic.) These particular lyrics are co-written with visual artist Kara Walker (who sent Bejar cue cards with pieces of text in 2009, after Merge Records invited her to contribute to its 20th anniversary box set), and include the double-taker Harmless little Negress, / You got to say yes / To another excess… We can talk all day about the difference between Bejar writing those lines and Walker writing them, just as we can think about how they would come off differently in a different song (on this album or elsewhere), but regardless of their source, out of Bejar’s mouth they have a discomfiting affect on the listener, which makes it a pretty effective representation of Walker’s work (particularly her eloquent, disturbing antebellum South silhouette caricatures—shadows unmoored from historical misrepresentations).

Knowing “for sure” that Bejar is singing I was poor in love in “Poor in Love” doesn’t dispel the rich ambiguity of his phrasing and delivery. The sound and sense indicate a pouring love that reiterates those drenching sighs—or were they signs?

There’s hard rhyme and there’s replacement. In the sky, in your eye is the latter, just as “Kaputt,” the title song from which it comes, doubles as “Song for America,” or is the song for America. All sound like a dream to me, where “all”  is a list of music rags, becomes All sounds like a dream to me, where “all” is the world, which maybe says something about how Bejar (or “Bejar”) sees the relationship between music (writing, and songwriting) and the world. Music’s in the world and vice versa. I wrote a song for America / Who knew? comes from the end of the side, hopping over “Downtown,” which lies between “Kaputt” and “Song for America.” Naturally, the imported lyrics do not appear on the sheet under “Kaputt.” When “Song for America” “actually” comes around, Who knew? is replaced by They told me it was clever, which is tautological. At the end of the first verse, Who knew returns, with an ellipsis instead of a question mark. Who knew…? We do.

So that’s side two. Side three is new, if you’ve been listening to the album download. This is a rare pleasure, a vinyl edition with an incorporated bonus (see also: The Glands’ self-titled late-for-indie-rock-without-being-post-indie-rock minor masterpiece). The extra music is not tacked onto the end of the album, but inserted before the closing side-long salvo, “Bay of Pigs (detail)” (side four), which has a structural logic and integrity to it, since a more diffuse version of “Bay of Pigs” appeared over a year ago on an EP. Turns out it was not a throwaway experiment, nor is it LP filler. In the context of the album (and in this tighter iteration), it sounds significant, even epic, without being tiresome.

Side three is side two of David Bowie’s Low (a collaboration in which the principal is not apparently in evidence, though his presence is felt; on Kaputt, Ted Bois plays the role of Brian Eno), but better enmeshed in the total album texture. Bejar reports the music for Kaputt was composed of disparate parts compiled remotely over time, and that he recorded vocals in couch repose. (His Pitchfork interview claims are substantiated by the album’s liner notes, which list nine members of The Kaputt Players, and indicate that the album was recorded and produced between fall 2008 and spring 2010.) On inspection we believe him and are glad for it. We’d sing along just this way. Side three is mostly instrumental, and the music fits with the rest of the album while justifying its paucity of vocals. It shows us how the album was made. The music was always there, as Greil Marcus says about Dock Boggs’ infinitely recursive banjo playing. The singer steps on stage (or collapses onto the couch) to do a number, and when he leaves (or disappears), the music remains. (So when Bejar goes into his hah dah dum routine in “Bay of Pigs,” we can trace it to another song, another album, but we’re better off recognizing that he’s not doing it again, he’s doing it still; we’re even better off if we shut up and dance the kind of dance where we become each other.) We can see Bejar on his couch in headphones, and we can also hear the music (by the same magic that allows us to see him there, barely moving, but moving), and we understand why he usually isn’t singing on side three, and his vocals on the rest of the album seem to be in place. We know during side three that Bejar will come back, and we know he will come back in lackadaisical force. After much stillness, we see his arm fall off the couch and take hold of a bottle. Listen. I’ve been drinking, he tells us as side four begins, and the lyric sheet tells us he’s singing in prose. Here replacement replaces hard rhyme (where drinking is thinking, and prose is poetry), a completion of the lyrical motif. The rest is up to us.

And here’s where Kaputt succeeds. It’s not thrown together, it’s put together. We know what that’s like. In our best moments, we do what Bejar is doing in his best moments. We make sense.