The New Pornographers' Dan Bejar gets nostalgic in ken

Destroyer is the stage name of Canadian musician Dan Bejar (above).
Destroyer is the stage name of Canadian musician Dan Bejar (above).PHOTO: MERGE

Here's a curio for music aficionados: The "ken" in the album title does not refer to a person called Ken, Kenny or Kenneth, but rather to the discarded title for the single, The Wild Ones, from the 1994 album Dog Man Star by Britpop band Suede.

Dan Bejar, the enigmatic Canadian behind his shape-shifting indie project Destroyer (and co-founder of The New Pornographers), calls the song "one of the great English-language ballads of the 100 years or so" and that he names his 12th album ken (yes, in lowercase) as it reminds him of the last years of the Margaret Thatcher era.

Tellingly, he also likes the fact that "ken" also means "to know" or "one's range of knowledge or understanding". This knowingness explains Destroyer's unceasing appetite for human experience across time and space, and this peppering of incidental minutiae may or may not inform a larger appreciation of the record at hand.

As it happens, ken is suffused with Thatcherite nostalgia, but it's nostalgia suspicious of itself, of love, wary of time's gift to make everything sound so deliciously forlorn.

The music is faultlessly invoked and Bejar's voice sounds apropos for this era, reedy and limber like that of Suede's lead man, Brett Anderson, bending according to mood and whim.

Drizzly synths and fuzzy guitars recall The Cure, men who love eyeliner and a dripping heart; and New Order, the post-punk/electronic survivors.

The opening track, Sky's Grey, recreates the romantic dreariness of a rain-drenched English North or a Scottish city.

  • Destroyer is the stage name of Canadian musician Dan Bejar (above).





    4 stars

"Sky's grey/Call for rain/Every day/You cancel the parade," he laments, inevitably referencing the cult 1980s/1990s Glaswegian band, The Blue Nile, and its songs Headlights On The Parade and Easter Parade.

Dolorous piano plunks are shadowed by clickety-clacks and far-away synths that nose around like mutts.

Burping synths and drum reverbs herald a new romanticism, a new spirit in the air, with "dear young revolutionary capitalists" and "the groom's in the gutter/And the bride just pi**ed herself", while Bejar declares repeatedly: "I've been working on the new Oliver Twist."

It's this mix of terrible fate and ridiculous optimism that fuels his best work and keeps all on their toes.

Tinseltown Swimming In Blood - surely a nod to The Blue Nile's 1984 lonesome classic Tinseltown In The Rain - is jaunty, but only in rhythm. In Bejar's eyes, Tinseltown is a mirage, "a dream of your blue eyes", and that "I was the Arctic/I was the vast/Spaces without reprieve".

Swooning as they are, the melodies are slightly off-kilter, as evidenced in Saw You At The Hospital, a near-autobiographical account of his stay in a Swiss hospital, "doped up" and possibly delusional.

Acoustic strums are familiar enough, but his pathetic confession - "Your eyes are clearly insane and your robes undone" - is echoed by a chorus and serrated by an electric riff.

This surrealism culminates in a humdinger A Light Travels Down The Catwalk, where show business is exposed as all sheen and surface.

"Strike an empty pose/A pose is always empty," he utters the unlovely truth.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 25, 2017, with the headline 'Knowledge peppered with nostalgia'. Print Edition | Subscribe