Step out of Your Toga

I love me some Destroyer. The academic cross-referencing, the subversive simplicity, the evolving character archive, the implicit misanthropy, the lazily bilious delivery, the obvious Bowie influence, the bad taste–it’s all part of a repertoire that drips with awkward, idiosyncratic swagger. Just take a look at what Bejar submitted to Merge Records as a list of “themes alluded to or avoided” in the forthcoming Destroyer album Kaputt:

Kaputt by Malaparte, which Bejar has never read… Kara Walker, specifically the lyrics she contributed to the song “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker”… Chinatown, the neighborhood bordering on Bejar’s… Baby blue eyes… 80s Miles Davis… 90s Gil Evans… Last Tango in Paris… Nic Bragg, who played lead guitar on every song, again… Fretless bass… The hopelessness of the future of music… The pointlessness of writing songs for today… V-Drums… The superiority of poetry and plays… And what’s to become of film?… The Cocaine Addict… American Communism… Downtown, the neighborhood bordering on Bejar’s… The LinnDrum… Avalon and, more specifically, Boys and Girls… The devastated mind of JC/DC, who recorded, produced and mixed this record from fall of 2008 to spring of 2010… The back-up vocals of certain Roy Ayers and Long John Baldry tours… Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence…

I’ve been listening to the album illegally for the last couple of weeks and can’t seem to give it a rest. In it, Bejar raises his uncompromising manner for a turn towards an ’80s-infused smooth jazz-pop sound, complete with suave horns and sultry female backing vocals. And to promote the approaching release, he’s given us this video for the title track:

Amazing. The song itself has been one of my two favorite tracks on the album. The second chorus is one of the most transcendent moments in the Destroyer catalogue: “Step out of your toga and into the fog, you are a prince of the ocean.” It soars. And this video is outrageous: when the mirage evaporates as the stranded man pours a chalice full of sand into his delirious mouth; when that same man tries to drink from his chalice while he’s actually in the ocean; when a fucking whale is flying in the sky with a flock of birds; when the teenager pulls out a balloon and employs his last breath to inflate it and elevate himself into the sky!

The track that really has me proselytizing here is “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker”, which tackles America’s racial issues with the help of the aforementioned artist and Merge Score! Volume 11 curator.

Destroyer – Suicide Demo for Kara Walker

According to the quote above, Kara Walker contributed lyrics to this song, but I wonder how much? Bejar just sells it so authentically. Off the bat, the title is pretty aggressive. After the pregnant, melancholy instrumental intro, what are we to expect? “Brown paper bag, don’t stop me now. I’m on a roll.” And we’re rolling. The music itself is fantastically catchy and an outright dance hit but the hooks elude us. Instead, we’re charmed along by a wealth of precious Destroyer moments: when he asks “Is it still the Invisible Man you’re consorting with, woman?”; when he tags on the prophecied “and they will” to the accusation that “New York just wants to see you naked”; when Bejar finally gives us that singular hook, crooning “You’ve got it all…” and then sneaks in “wrong” to flip the sentiment. And on and on.

But as the lyrics develop, this is clearly a heavier song than we’re used to from Bejar. And we have Kara Walker to thank for transporting his listeners to such a place of gravity. Despite his off-the-cuff performance, he’s delivering a poignant and unsettling critique of a polarized Obama era in which the hopeful produce of black presidency are borne with the memory of strange fruit, in which the nation’s grossest prejudices populate the daylight to defy progress, where “four more years” worries for “four hundred more years” of slavery, and the ghost of Harriet Tubman instructs us in the escapist/survivalist mantra: “I look up, I see the North Star, I look up, I see the North Star.” We’re given a glimpse into might have been their collaborative process in the cryptic lines “‘Maybe or maybe not… fast forward,’ she said. ‘Maybe once the seed is sown… fast forward,’ she said. ‘This bird has flown south’ she said. ‘Don’t talk about the south,’ she said.” Is this the evidence of a real-life conversation between Walker and Bejar about the future of our country? Perhaps and surely. While I don’t expect specific answers anytime soon, it’s easy to see that’s exactly what this song is. And who cares about the details of credit when we’re stretched across such a spectrum, from despair to ecstasy? We’re expanded.

And then they let the horns loose.

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