Monday, February 13, 2012

Destroyer - Kaputt

The 80s revival is in full swing. Did anyone think it would last this long? If genre revivals go in 20-year cycles, as some suggest, we were due to reach '91 last year. And yet we had one 80s album after another: the synthpop/dreampop stylings of M83, the taut New Wave of The Drums, the entire chillwave genre (in particular, efforts by Neon Indian and Washed Out). And this: Kaputt, the ninth studio album by Destroyer.

All revivals are distortions. The early 00s post-punk revival, for example, turned the restless innovation of late-70s rock into a slick rhythm-based formula; this new 80s revival turns lazy 80s decadence into immediacy and passion. There are 80s signifiers in the music--digital synth sounds, even DX7 keyboards, and tons of reverb--but the clean, detached sound of 80s pop morphs into lo-fi immediacy. Compare a song like Neon Indian's "Fallout" to 80s tracks like "Welcome to the Pleasuredome," or even "The Perfect Kiss." Such tracks were distinctive not just for their synths and effects (although those were of course part of it) but for their glossy, detached feel. Even those artists who traded in angst--Depeche Mode and The Smiths come to mind--coated their anguish with a polished sheen and a knack for performance. This 80s revival throws all of that away.

Another way of seeing this: the 80s were an expensive time. The decade's digital tech was cutting-edge and expensive as hell. The Fairlight CMI, for instance--a synth used by everyone from Duran Duran to Japan to the B-52's--went for tens of thousands of dollars. But now digital synths are a download away, free or at least cheap. They're not decadent luxury; they're the cheapest you can get.

The result is an 80s revival that doesn't sound a lot like the 80s. The gap between Frankie Goes to Hollywood and an album like Hurry Up, We're Dreaming is as huge as the space between glam rock and grunge. Hurry Up feels huge and intimate at the same time--it's like stadium rock, but the stadium is the singer's bedroom. It feels womblike, as one blogger so ably points out: it's light, gauzy, and the lyrics are nostalgic and comforting. 80s pop dealt in self-reference, irony, and pomp. This 80s revival is more often gentle and sincere.

Kaputt breaks that pattern. It trades chillwave's emotionalism for refined detachment, the pulsing blips of standard 80s revivalism for gentle synthesizer strings. The lyrics are brainy and self-aware; the arrangements are soft and clean, free from any emotional gut-punches. Their elegance recalls 80s decadence: think of the cocaine and toga parties in the title track, or the opera and "infinite sense of value" in "Savage Night at the Opera." This isn't to say that the album is emotionless or numbed, but its emotions are subtle and seldom telegraphed. The album's tone is that of luxurious, sensuous beauty, worlds away from the bedroom-lofi rawness of chillwave and other 80s revivals.

"Chinatown," the first song, opens with a soft, chorus-drenched guitar, horns blending in with lush synthesizers. It's peaceful, decidedly major-key. But the lyrics are impressionistic but ominous: "a government swallowed up in the squall" as the narrator insists that he "can't walk away." The singer, Daniel Bejar, is tranquil but aware of tragedy; he's in a blissful soundscape he can't quite give way to.

This is what elevates the album--what makes it more than a throwback to a better-forgotten decade. It plays its sense of luxury against a constant threat of danger. Bejar embraces the 80s wholeheartedly, but he never forgets that there's a world moving on, hurting, while he takes his nostalgia trip.

Take the title track. The openings lines are: "wasting your days / chasing some girls / alright, chasing cocaine / through the backrooms of the world." It's a lyric about decadent excess, endless recreation. But then it shifts: "sounds / smash hits / melody maker / NME / all sound like a dream to me." The song isn't about the drugs anymore, or the lifestyle: it's about the narrator reading about all of these things in NME, Melody Maker, all the music magazines. From the 80s themselves to stories about the 80s, from event to memory. There's also geography to take into account: NME, Melody Maker, Smash Hits, and Sounds were all British music magazines; Bejar is Canadian. 80s luxury is split off from him at two points: first, he doesn't experience it--he only reads about it in the magazines--and second, even the magazines come from far away.

The song shifts again. "I wrote a song for America / who knew?" sings Bejar. Before the song evoked Britain; now, when Bejar writes a song about America, he's jumping across the ocean. So the movement is in three parts: from the 80s, to remembering the 80s, to living in the present.

The "song for America" can't help but lead to "Song for America," two tracks later. In which Bejar sings: "Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall... / Animals crawl towards death's embrace. / Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall, / Punks kick a ball in a park on a Sunday /Strung out in the rain." These lines are about the world going on as usual--kids playing sports and getting stoned--while nature in its violence goes on. When Bejar writes about how "Animals crawl towards death's embrace," he's not talking about sudden disaster, he's talking about the way that animals die every day, routinely. It's an anti-escapist song: it's about death's presence even in idyllic scenes, in a nice Sunday at the park.

And so we get the last song, "Bay of Pigs," an 11-minute epic. Its images are even bleaker than "Song for America," picturing the world as a ruin, "just bones / stones dressed up in the rain." Even "the discotheque at night," an icon of escape through music, "doesn't mean a thing, it never means a thing." And all this goes on and on, just as "The tide comes in and the tide goes out again."

But the album won't end on a bad note. Bejar turns to the 80s again, this time more personally: "And speaking of a world turning sour on you, / I was twenty years old in 1992 / I was bathed in golden sunlight." In other words, after '92--after those years of UK music magazines and dreams of luxury--things went south. The world went sour after the 80s ended. That idealized picture is false, though: just after that he says, "I was ripped on dope, you were a ray of sunshine." His life was always a mess, even in '92, and it was the "you" he doesn't name who lit things up. That loved one takes up the song's last line: "Nancy, in a state of crisis, on a cloud." It's a picture of blissful peace ("on a cloud") even in the midst of "a state of crisis." It's what he's been looking for throughout the entire album, and he's finally found it. It's ambiguous, just as the whole album is ambiguous: bliss and disaster hooked into one line. A hell of an album-length statement, and one that's just as pleasant as fascinating.

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