Dan Bejar’s complicated relationship with, and frequent subversion of, pop conventions has always been a defining aspect of his music. Destroyer’s ken, though, showcases the most commercially appealing elements of Bejar’s oeuvre—the 1980s nostalgia of Kaputt and the muscular power pop of his work with the New Pornographers—in an atypically concise, digestible package. It might be the first Destroyer album on which Bejar sounds anything less than begrudged about appealing to a contemporary pop audience.
ken does share some cosmetic similarities with Kaputt, but where that album was airy and intricate, full of multi-instrument melodic lines constantly intertwining in a spacious sonic playground, this one is much less reliant on band dynamics. The album is murky and claustrophobic but still consistently melodic. The distinction can be heard on “Tinseltown Swimming in Blood,” which could pass most readily for a Kaputt outtake thanks to its brass, shimmering guitars, and hypnotically repetitious series of vocal refrains. But the heavy, thudding low end of the guitars and bass give the song a sense of weight and viscosity that Kaputt lacked. And Bejar’s delivery is more energetic, lending those vocal hooks a greater urgency and sharpness.
Throughout ken, Bejar’s voice does most of the heavy lifting in terms of melody and dynamics. The nebulous structure of “Sky’s Grey” recalls older Destroyer songs like “Looters’ Follies” and “Shooting Rockets” rather than the more intricate efforts on Kaputt and Poison Season in that it seems to primarily follow Bejar’s cadences and eccentric-as-ever turns of phrase. But his once-raggedy squawk has evolved into a suave croon with emotional range. Lyrics like “Bombs in the city, plays in the sticks” are delivered with a prim, velvety elocution over quiet electronic percussion and stately piano, while a more sarcastic and vulgar line, “Come one, come all, dear young revolutionary capitalists/The groom’s in the gutter/And the bride just pissed herself,” is sung in a trembling scoff over a building crescendo.
“A Light Travels Down the Catwalk” and “Sometimes in the World” present even more of a vocal challenge for Bejar. Long stretches feature stark, static arrangements composed of little more than dissonant guitar noise, a synth drone, and minimalist percussion. But he still manages to endow these songs with a slick, if askew, pop sensibility. The fact that he doesn’t attempt to obscure his natural gift for writing indelible hooks, however, is unusual for Destroyer. ken’s high-energy closer, “La Regle du Jeu,” is easily the most overtly commercial song that Bejar’s ever recorded, with its pulsating runway synths and high-drama guitar solo. Bejar even works some pop-cultural references into his usually dense, literary lyrics, crowing about “a Death Star in bloom” on “In the Morning” and name-checking, of all things, I Know What You Did Last Summer in “Cover from the Sun.”
The latter song’s strident guitars and chipper melody will sound familiar enough to those who came to Bejar’s work through the New Pornographers. Destroyer’s music has always been knotty and strange, seemingly above such easy crowd-pleasing overtures. But above all, the band has stayed a step ahead of expectations. Coloring these poppier songs with Destroyer’s off-kilter aesthetic only deepens Bejar’s quintessential unpredictability.