When you listen to ken, you’ll think of “the 80s.” While it’s easy to evoke that period with instrumentation, it’s more difficult to do so with what you might call “a sensibility.” Sure, ken has a lot of synths, but so did Your Blues. There’s a way in which things all sorta come together — irrespective of the instruments on which they’re being played — that recalls the type of songwriting practiced by a certain strand of mid-to-late-80s British rock outfits — for instance, in the jangly bombast of “Cover From the Sun.” But allusions to styles and genres aren’t new for Destroyer, and here they’re mostly oblique, as they have been on past records.
ken retains a similar spirit to Poison Season and Kaputt, with its mostly glossy, foggy presence, punctuated by the occasional brash guitar lick or uncanny horns, but there’s an almost gothic bleakness here that feels like a new preoccupation. From the opening lines of “Sky’s Grey,” we’re introduced to the barbiturate-laced, droning vocal delivery, ebbing in and out of the distance, that permeates much of the record. There’s a flatness throughout, a plodding malaise with the seeming intention of lulling or softly bludgeoning the listener with its persistence. This is matched musically with what is mostly mid-tempo, structurally unassuming progressions, which is distinct from the jarring turns of, say, City of Daughters or Streethawk: A Seduction.
It’s difficult, of course, to talk about Destroyer without talking about Dan Bejar’s lyrics. In a 2006 interview with CBC, he had this to say about the lyrics in Destroyer’s Rubies:
I can say that if it was like a Destroyer 101 class, it’d be like, something epic, and fatalist, followed by an aside that you mumble to your friend who’s non-existent. And then something really material and maybe banal, and then another aside commenting on that which just came before it, the material or banal thing.
I think about this quote a lot when listening to Destroyer records, because it’s so accurate. There’s a humor in these juxtapositions, in saying things like, “Vancouver’s got a new Caligula/ Hey, that’s cool” (“Sometimes in the World”). While plenty of other little traits can make a Destroyer lyric a Destroyer lyric, there’s something evocative about a truly successful Destroyer lyric, even if it’s formulaic or mundane; a successfully mundane Destroyer lyric manages also to be vague enough to cause your mind to rush to fill in the blanks, as in “Tinseltown Swimming in Blood”: “I was a dreamer/ Watch me leave” (repeated six times, to really drive the point home).
Playing with tense and person in that way, indicating some larger story than is actually being conveyed, makes for the seemingly effortless poetry present in Bejar’s best work, but most of the lyrics on ken accomplish next to nothing. Although a superficial reading of Bejar’s lyrics might conclude that they’re composed largely of rambling non-sequiturs, ken helps demonstrate just how difficult or serendipitous it is to work out a lyric like those in his earlier work (or the lines that make up the best parts of ken). At the risk of oversimplifying things, I’m tempted to describe these lyrics as placeholders that were never revisited.
On the other hand, there are lines like “Tinseltown swimming in blood” that are simply too gratuitous in their reach, demonstrating how precarious it can be to go in the opposite direction. The brilliance of a good Destroyer lyric is its ability to toe the line between these two extremes, and the failure of ken is that this doesn’t happen often enough.
Put together, this spells out the album’s main problem: the lyrics can’t support the music, and vice-versa. That’s not to say there aren’t some great moments for people who’ve been following Bejar’s work — “Ivory Coast” and much of the second half of the record have a lot of noteworthy moments, in both their musical adventurousness and lyrical successes. But the interplay between flatness and richness that Bejar describes as integral to his lyrics — and that can be extended to its interplay with his music — isn’t here a lot of the time. Rather than doing a lot with a little, ken is just… little.
Considered as a whole, ken sets a dark, overcast mood that’s been hinted at in recent work but is mostly rare for Destroyer, so it’ll be interesting to see where things go in the future if this thread is followed. I suspect, however, that this might be the end of the Kaputt sound, described by Bejar at the time as “ambient disco;” notably, it’s a sound that’s been settled into and explored for three records straight, all of which have black-and-white covers, and Bejar has been historically restless. A hunch tells me this might be an intentional “trilogy,” which would be characteristically melodramatic — but with Destroyer, you never know.