Anyone who’s enjoyed Canadian indie rock band Destroyer’s recorded output during the first half of the 2010s has most certainly been curious as to which approach singer-songwriter Dan Bejar would take on his project’s latest release, ken. While although both Kaputt (2011) and Poison Season (2015) were undeniably strong releases that featured Bejar’s trademark sexy croon and abstract, literary poetry, the two albums were significantly different musically. The bulk of tracks on Kaputt leaned heavily on atmospheric electronics, seductive brass, and passionate female backing vocals in order to create a sensuously languorous groove throughout that helped widen and redefine the stylistic breadth of what Destroyer was capable of. On the other hand, Poison Season harnessed a largely naturalistic tone by utilizing sumptuous orchestral arrangements for the balladic pieces, transforming seamlessly when necessary to appropriate a sense of fiery urgency for the record’s more energetic, driving tracks.
This brings us to ken, which finds producer Josh Wells taking Destroyer’s sound in a somewhat colder and more austere direction. Alienating atonal chords emerge and disappear, songs conclude awkwardly, with a sputtering trumpet or a pulsing synth, and as with most Destroyer albums, the devil is in the details. Dan Bejar has always had a brilliant ear for divining which of his mantra-like, eccentric lyrical lines will stick in listeners’ heads. “I’ve been working on the new Oliver Twist,” Bejar repeats playfully during ken’s opener, “Sky’s Grey”, a track that begins with skittering beats that pan from left to right and features sparse piano, building to include warm strings and a charming lead guitar solo. The back-to-back sister songs “In the Morning” and “Tinseltown Swimming in Blood” are upbeat and work well in their neighboring sequence, the latter employing a Peter Hook-ish bassline and a trumpet that help warm the cold keyboards and programmed percussion.
ken’s halfway point is reached with the acoustic ballad “Saw You at the Hospital”, which manages to avoid sounding entirely out of place by the inclusion of a slightly warped synth solo. The album sags a bit during the monotonous “A Light Travels Down the Catwalk” and the schizophrenic “Rome”, which never quite feels like it knows what it wants to be. The album begins to pull out of this slump, however, with the short “Sometimes in the World”, a song wherein Bejar delivers another lyrical earworm with the line, “I can’t pay for this, all I’ve got is money.” The album’s penultimate track, “Stay Lost”, is another short number that has Bejar cheerily giving life advice while accompanied by a chugging distorted guitar and a phase shifting synth. ken is concluded with the subversive “La Règle du Jeu”, a death disco capper whose French title translates to “The Rules of the Game”. “La Règle du Jeu, La Règle du Jeu, but not so blind as to not see,” Bejar hisses sinisterly before a hard rocking guitar solo drives the song to its pulsing end.
Destroyer succeeds in finding an alternative way to return to the largely synthetic sounds explored on Kaputt without sounding redundant. And although it’s one of the band’s shortest full-lengths, ken never feels incomplete or lacking. After over twenty years recording and releasing music as Destroyer, Dan Bejar proves he still has a lot to offer in terms of adopting genres and interpreting them in the unique and thoughtful way only he can.