by Carl Wilson
Two minutes into “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker,” perhaps the most-talked-about song on Destroyer’s new album, Kaputt, I start getting insistent tugs on my ear from this 35-year-old antecedent (the guitarist in the video even looks a little like Destroyer’s Dan Bejar):
“Lovin’ You” always bedeviled me, with its insipidly fluid bliss and its deeply dubious central assertion, “Lovin’ you is easy ’cause you’re beautiful.” Which makes me want to sing along with Dan on “Suicide Demo” (words provided by artist Kara Walker): “You’ve got it all … wrong. You’ve got it all backwards, girl.”
As the entire tradition of romantic lyric back to Sappho underlines in red ink, being in love with someone especially beautiful is generally not described as “easy.” Khaela Maricich (The Blow) once joked that “Lovin’ You” was the only song she could think of “just about happily being in love with someone and everything’s great and you’re just chillin’ there together”; she mimicked the way Minnie Riperton’s verses trail off into non-verbal babble as proof of how little you can say about that state, if it even exists and isn’t just a utopian lie we tell.
There’s a 1975 glibness in “Lovin’ You”‘s use of the word “beautiful” – yr beautiful, baby, don’t ever change, yr beautiful, I’m beautiful, we’re both so beautiful to me when U walk behind me as I gaze into this mirror naked, upper lip & nostrils caked w/ layer on layer of cocaine, & btw lines we come down on a half-bottle of Jack. Lovin’ U is EZ, when U can get it up tho that’s less & less often…
Less cynically, given its period context, maybe Riperton’s alluding to “Black is beautiful,” staking claim on that utopian story specifically for black men and black women together: given the wreckage slavery and racism have wrought on black families and relationships, an even more utopian, radical proposition than usual. (Worth mentioning here because, through [consensually] appropriating Walker’s words, this is the first Destroyer song I can think of that’s even obliquely about race.)
Like a lot of utopian slogans, “Black is beautiful” always had a difficult undertow: Did it mean that Black Power (as the Angela Davis/Huey Newton image could imply) belonged to the young and fine, not the aging, broke-ass, wrinkly-mugged, poor, hungry or cranky? Many Sixties ideals were doomed to premature decadence because “don’t trust anybody over 30” tilted against the bodily, biological destiny of the radical subjects themselves.
On a simpler level, the hook of “Lovin’ You” always drove me nuts because of its implicit corollary: On the other hand, lovin’ you would be difficult-to-impossible, because you’re one homely mofo. I’m out of your league. What’s ‘easy’ for me has to flatter my shallow narcissism, the way those glissandos and flutes do. (NB this is the song saying this, not Riperton herself.)
So have at it: Is it easier to love the beautiful? In aesthetics this is the riddle of the Sphinx, with her upper lip and lower nostrils caked in layer upon layer of history, mystification, rejection and body glitter licked off the ski-slope bosom of a life model.
Alexander Nehamas has written, “Beauty is the most discredited philosophical notion – so discredited that I could not even find an entry for it in the index of the many books in the philosophy of art I consulted in order to find it discredited. … For it is the judgment of aesthetic value itself – the judgment of taste – that is embarrassing.”
Before Kaputt, Destroyer seemed a strong partisan of that discomfort, holding that the beautiful – the materially beautiful, the well-made, sensually satiating, seductive, limpid or opulent – is the enemy of love, or at best the frenemy: It wasn’t shut out – this wasn’t noise music; there were melodies, chord voicings, cadences resolving, singers going “ladada,” as well as mentions of pretty girls and Rubies – but those things came in for heavy ribbing and skepticism.
Kaputt’s closest precedent among Destroyer albums to now was Your Blues, his previous “farewell to rock” in favour of more butterfly-wings textures, but because the strings and woodwinds were MIDI simulations they came with their ironies programmed in, their “embarrassment” in Nehamas’ terms: With its laminated surfaces reflecting back the acknowledged tackiness of their prettiness and amiability, the record kept itself on the “right” side of camp (that is, the left side). Kaputt works without that hedge.
People who didn’t like Your Blues called it ugly, jokey, anti-musical, while people who don’t like Kaputt, like some members of the Polaris Prize jury at large, call it “wallpaper music.” Your Blues threatened you with gorgeousness barely enough to lure your feet to the trap door and your neck to the noose. Kaputt just comes on gorgeous and necks with you and leaves you to wonder whether you are now in Heaven or in Hell, or (forget it) Chinatown, Jake.
With an opening track titled for that interzone where all rules are suspended or reversed, we’re put on notice this is still Destroyer here, still Shiva among the aspects of the godhead– the trickster, transformer, prankster, Heath-Ledger’s-Joker of music, the lunging voice darting between levels of rhetoric. Did I ever tell you how I got these scars? – setting in spin a rotating display of mendacity: I got them on the Nile, rescuing Jews from Pharaoh; I bought them from a dominatrix at a hefty price; my mother kissed me too hard as a baby; they’re all self-inflicted with my K-Mart calligraphy pen …
“You terrify the land,” Bejar sings on “Blue Eyes.” “You are pestle and mortar. You’re first love’s New Order, Mother Nature’s Sun, King of the Everglades, Population One … I write poetry for myself, I write poetry for myself. (Oh, baby.)”
I write poetry for myself, so I let it get pretty silly, but for you I’ll make these crystal baubles of sonic costume jewellery, and you can wear them cockeyed or straight.
At last, Destroyer’s roguishness has lost all trace of brattiness. It’s the music of the rake, the seducer for whom the boudoir is the site of both sustenance and cosmic belly-laugh, a game of chance that – and this is both graciousness and ultimate manipulation – he flatteringly assumes his partner(/listener) can play with equally wised-up gusto.
It’s not just a change of style but a reassessment of stakes, as any alteration in an artist’s relation to Beauty has flat-out got to be. After a mid-period of what now looks a bit like a style outliving its agenda, Kaputt transports us to a plane where pre-emptive radical pessimism reconciles with the biological, with the body – which is to say pop music. After all, this is Bejar’s first record after becoming a father (a transition that for a while found him flirting with giving up on music altogether, as we heard on “Making of Grief Point” in 2010), and as he’s pushing 40.
The stakes used to be cultural life-or-death, even though death was almost certain to win; now the stakes are just plain life-and-death, and since there’s no “almost” in how that pans out, the only smart contrarian way to go is to put some life into it, some pleasure principle, some sensual consolation, while not ignoring the social friction, the bumps and scars (did I tell you where I got them?) that come from bodies shoving against each other to claim resources: “Kara Walker” aside even, there are more explicitly political jibes and japes on this Destroyer record than on any since the early tapes, or at least ones that aren’t transposed into jokes about monarchs, aristocrats and/or the music industry.
The ingredients of the sound are post-glam 1970s like Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music, “Quiet Storm”-style R&B of the kind Riperton presaged (a lot of people, without mentioning “Lovin’ You,” have compared her voice to that of Sibel Thrasher, the Vancouver soul-gospel singer whose frequent contributions on Kaputt finally bring counterpoint to all the female foils/projections that have dotted Destroyer lyrics), lovers’ rock like Sade, post-punk Nu-Romantic keyboard bands (the sound of Dan’s adolescence)… all post-radical musics for cultures in recovery and all involving rehabilitations of Beauty, which after each failed revolution sounds so old and long-forgotten that its reappearance is as startling and exotic as a red-shanked douc.
Dave Hickey famously wrote (referring to Liberace) that “good” taste is just the residue of somebody else’s privilege, but that kind of taste can also be the residue of the radicalism of someone who might have borne your own name: a way of reincorporating, altered, what we once rejected and negated, not having known we might need it to survive the aftermath or at least the afterparty. Either way whether those efforts get received as good taste or bad depends upon where the observer stands on our ignoble effrontery in continuing on past a story’s designated end.
Most of those Kaputt influences were savaged by critics in their day, though they’ve retroactively gained cred in our own more ecumenical time. (Which suits Dan fine, as only a foolish artist keeps trying to stay “ahead” stylistically once they’re no longer young, when it’s time to stop trying to be novel and try to be better.) I think in particular of Greil Marcus saying, when asked about Anita Baker (a clear heir to Riperton): “I think Anita Baker is ridiculous. Any time you hear somebody bringing back this kind of genteel, effete black music – the same number the Pointer Sisters pulled in the early ’70s when they gave concerts with ‘Black Tie Recommended’ printed on the tickets – it’s an incident in class politics that has nothing to do with music.”
My friend John has frequently railed about that quote as the epitome of the white hipster critic’s inability to get behind materially underprivileged people’s rational aspiration to comfort, gentility, privilege, all that’s been denied them. John’s gone so far as to call it “hateful” on that level, but I’m more inclined to extend forgiveness for the letdown, Panther-sympathizer, revanchist perspective it comes from, however armchair and half-cocked.
What Marcus overlooks is that aspirational sounds can not only ring of the post-radical but of the post-colonial, decline-of-empire, will-to-justice. In that sense they’re all our recessionary peers: Outside the 10% who control the 50%, who can afford not to aspire now? And who at any time, pushing 40, is not aspirational in the impossible lottery of immortality, of restored youth, of even imagining having the will, much less the liberty to “chase cocaine through the back rooms of the world”? All music becomes aspirational given world enough and time, so you don’t have to call it retro, as you can always have your nostalgia in advance, a case of déjà-preview: That’s why instead of “yacht rock” or “dad rock” I prefer to call Kaputt “positive witch house.”
Kaputt can admit all those urges, and put them in quotes-within-quotes, without finding them justifiable. What’s interesting is how many people, aside from a few wallpaper-sayers, seem to get it: When I saw a Destroyer video on MuchMusic for the first time the other night, namely Dawn Carol Garcia’s ticklish video for the title track, I said in my Facebook status update, “2003’s head just exploded.” Maybe what people are liking is just the beauty, the glimmer of the production values, like the old folks at Sulimay’s. But I think they’re also liking the taste of poison within the sugar pill, that metallic edge, the familiarity of the bitter.
As Nehamas goes on to say: “Unlike a conclusion, [beauty] obeys no principles; it is not governed by concepts. It goes beyond all the evidence, which cannot therefore justify it, and points to the future. Beauty, just as Stendhal said, is a promise of happiness.”
A promise it has no intention of keeping, unless the promise is enough. Which it isn’t. Lovin’ Kaputt is easy, because it’s a beautiful loser, but beauty is only the beginning of terror, coolly declining to destroy us today. One more day. At a time.