“As apocalypses go, that’s pretty good—wouldn’t you say?”
In 2021, this stylish line from Destroyer’s schmaltzy soft rock opus, Kaputt, works all too well as a modern day revelation. It’s a light-hearted one-liner in the vein of the This is Fine meme—that popular cartoon of a dog about to sip coffee under the flames of a domestic fire, only to still proclaim that things are alright. This condensed optimism preaches that, even against the most dreary backdrop, we must welcome every improvement with a shining smile.
Curiously enough though, the apocalyptic one-liner is no pandemic piece. Followers of Vancouver-based indie rock band Destroyer will recognize it as the lyrics from “Bay of Pigs (Detail),” the closing track on songwriter Dan Bejar’s breakthrough album, Kaputt, released 10 years ago this month. Issued by Merge Records in January 2011, Kaput is still indie music’s flagship take on the sophisti-pop sound.
Surfacing in the UK in the 80s, sophisti-pop combined pop’s thirst for catchy verses with jazz and soul’s preference for saxophones, slickness, and smooth production values. The sub-genre was pushed forward by the likes of Bryan Ferry (“Slave to Love” being a sophisti-pop staple), the Blue Nile or David Sylvian; artists who orbited around a pop music template while mixing in lustrous, idyllic synths. Needless to say, these artists have no connection to Destroyer who built their following around guitar-centered tunes, elliptic lyrics, and poetic turns of phrase.
In an unlikely success story, when the early 2010s witnessed a redemption of this sneered-at sophisti-pop blueprint, Destroyer harnessed these smooth aesthetics and wonderful horns. With nine tracks clocking in at just over 50 minutes, Kaputt triumphs by crossing over sophisti-pop’s jazzy devices with indie rock’s magnetism for witty-yet-offbeat lyricism. This crossover appeal may help explain why Kaputt invited a wider audience than the band’s previous releases.
Destroyer had already issued eight full-lengths before Kaputt took the indie sphere by storm, but by the end of 2011 Bejar had a full scorecard that included late-night TV appearances, a slot at Coachella, and high rankings in multiple year-end best-of lists by outlets such as The Guardian. Kaputt, it seemed, had stirred up an excitement which previous albums had not. Years on, Bejar reflected on this fact without claiming much merit, saying that the album, “happened to line up with a certain zeitgeist” that “clicked with 2011.”
The success of other lush indie pop records from 2011, such as Bon Iver’s self-titled album, strengthens his point. That same year, music writer Simon Reynolds explained in his book Retromania that pop was living through an obsession with its past, a treatise to which Kaputt certainly catered. Under this simple thesis, Kaputt was released in a rare moment of enchantment with the 80s, and the attention it gathered drew from this timely release.
For all its gleaming soundscapes, Kaputt also holds on as indie’s sophisti-pop banner because of Bejar’s distinct lyrics. Both witty and loony, unhitched and localized, his playful narratives speak about coping with Vancouver’s rain and apparatus—“A government swallowed up in the squall,” from opening track “Chinatown”—or about the aspirations of a dying rockstar when he sings, “Sounds, Smash Hits, Melody Maker, NME / All sound like a dream to me” on the album’s title track. Bejar will scramble the suitable with the illogical and, not unlike indie rock heroes Guided By Voices who churn out an open coffer full of non-sequiturs, as seen on the album closer “Bay of Pigs”:
“I’ve seen it all… I’ve seen it all. Magnolia’s a girl. Her heart’s made of wood. As apocalypses go, that’s pretty good, sha-la-la, wouldn’t you say?”
Destroyer’s penchant for snapping in quirky, nonsensical phrases within delicate pop songs explains how his lines seem so current today. Dan Bejar has been recognized as the coiner of some of the “densest, most elliptical lyrics” in indie rock, and Kaputt is a trove for both outlandish (“King of the Everglades, population: 1,” as sung on “Blue Eyes”) and alarming (“I can’t walk away, you can’t walk away”) one-liners.
Bejar, for his part, wouldn’t agree. To begin with, Destroyer didn’t build upon Kaputt’s success. “There wasn’t too much to bask in,” he said in 2015. Subsequent albums have strayed from being Kaputt II, a rift approved by critics and fans alike. It seems that 10 years in, Kaputt is set to remain Destroyer’s sole exploration of sophisti-pop’s vintage synths, nightly saxophones, and rockstar dreams.
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