EZ Rock for the Indie Set
In the storied tradition of German words that sound uniquely fitted to the concepts they describe, the word "kaputt" is not very remarkable. It can mean many things, but "lost" and "broken" are among them, and it sounds, as one might expect, like the noise your mouth would make when finding something you needed was unexpectedly gone or not functioning as it should be. The phonetics of the word are the resignation of a mumble into an indescribably dark chasm, a mantra offered into an abyss of yearning and disappointment.
What is rather surprising however is that Destroyer's 2011 album Kaputt doesn't feel lost or broken at all. It doesn't feel disappointing, it doesn't feel lacking. It is knowingly warm and openly gracious, utilizing drum sounds, trumpets, and reverb ratios directly out of the 1980s to achieve a "now"ness and a level of freshness that is unmistakably of its time. Every synth stab and backing vocal is a pipe dream for the enfranchised, the realization of hardships unknown and unearned. There is a multi-part suite entitled "The Laziest River", itself an acknowledgement that laziness is not only remarkable but worth aspiring toward.
Dan Bejar had been the mastermind of Destroyer since 1995 when the group formed in Canada. He had attained notoriety as a member of the New Pornographers but Destroyer wrote and released eight albums before Kaputt. And yet, in some ways this was a coming out party for the band - its success propelled them to such pivotal moments as their first official music video and national TV performance. The music-loving public knew Bejar, but a wide swath of them were only now realizing that he was an interesting artist even way outside of the box from which they knew him originally.
Kaputt is perhaps one of this millennium's first earnest attempts at something like "dad rock" that was conceived and executed to be relevant in the indie music sphere writ large. Bejar's voice was mellowed out by being slightly further back in the mix and counterpointed with backing vocals, his nasal tenor was not a liability here in the way that it occasionally could be when compared to the dreamily overdubbed A.C. Newman and the sultry stylings of Neko Case in the context of the New Pornographers. Here, his voice was just another instrument that was perfectly calibrated to excavate a sense of nostalgia for a time that hadn't yet come to pass even though it felt like it might be just around the corner.
Many of the songs offer this same fondness for the past and a jovially nihilistic sense that nothing is sacred. "Chinatown" is a breezy lead-off that wouldn't be out of place in any backyard during happy hour, "Bay of Pigs (Detail)" is an epically shifting composition that conveys comfort even while it's taking left turn after left turn. "Song for America" is a tongue-in-cheek ode to the American Dream, but it rebrands the notion as what it actually is: just another way to make it through the years in some form of voluntary delusion. And the sarcasm doesn't stop with throwing japes at outside characters and abstractions. In "Savage Night at the Opera", Bejar even turns his acerbic wit back at himself and the nonsense of making music: "Hey, Infinite Sense of Value…I heard your record, it's alright."
Destroyer's breakthrough album was lauded when it came out, universally praised by critics. How it hit with audiences is harder to gauge. There is no argument that the critical community was pretty well on the money in its initial assessment, the issue comes with how the album landed (or perhaps didn't) with general audiences on a macro level. But when the book is written about 21st Century indie rock, Kaputt deserves to be a touchstone. It is a tentpole moment when indie musicians realized that looking to the mainstream concepts of the past was a viable starting point when crafting sounds that were meant to be not only shiny, but truly and fundamentally golden for their current era and beyond.
Would we have Justin Vernon's effusive plays on Hornsby-esque piano-driven balladry if not for Kaputt? Would we have M83's rollicking saxophone solo in "Midnight City"? Would we have artists like Thundercat and Twin Shadow who have unsubtly, almost brazenly, used late 80's adult contemporary music as a stencil from which they draw brand new melodies and songs? Realistically, the answer is probably yes, we would. But Kaputt exists as a shrine both to itself, and to a time when reality existed to be either sanded down or heightened depending on one's mood in any given moment. Kaputt exists in a reality where that tune you can't get out of your head is the best part of your day.
While Dan Bejar most likely didn't create modern indie music's nostalgia fetish, he was clearly happy to do his part in cutting the rope so that it could sail away into the unknown open waters of the future. Nothing lost, nothing broken; no captains, no crew. Just relatable ideas draped in solidly unassuming vibes from here to the horizon. For that, if for nothing else, we should all be grateful.