'Kaputt' Turns 10: Destroyer's "Violently Laid-Back" Opus That Defined a Decade

Reverberated trumpet, sexy sax, fretless bass — Dan Bejar helped set the tone for an explosion of indie rock schmaltz
'Kaputt' Turns 10: Destroyer's 'Violently Laid-Back' Opus That Defined a Decade
Photo: Ted Bois
By the time Dan Bejar released Kaputt on January 25, 2011, he was a decade and a half into a career that had already included eight prior Destroyer albums, a celebrated run with Vancouver power pop collective the New Pornographers, and two weirdo art-rock LPs with supergroup Swan Lake. At 38, he had already reached a point when many of his peers were settling into the "legacy artist" stage of their careers. He certainly wasn't supposed to be defining the indie rock zeitgeist.

But that's exactly what he did. Upon its release, Kaputt sounded almost like an experiment in bad taste. Soft rock belonged in dentists' waiting rooms, and countless dog-eared copies of Roxy Music's Avalon littered vinyl discount bins everywhere. And then came one of indie rock's coolest musicians with an opulent odyssey of shameless kitsch. Flute solos, reverberated trumpet, sexy saxophone, fretless bass — Kaputt almost dared listeners to think it was corny. "I definitely see myself more embedded in questionable lounge schmaltz these days," Bejar told The Quietus at the time, "which, a few years back, would have disgusted me."

As he explained to Exclaim! in early 2011, there was something confrontational and defiant about being this unabashedly smooth. "It's violently laid-back," he said.

Bejar wrote and recorded Kaputt with his usual producers, the duo of JC/DC (John Collins and David Carswell), but the rest of the process was anything but ordinary. Instead of recording with a live band, the Kaputt ensemble never actually played together until the album was already complete; during the drawn-out sessions, Bejar scatted and improvised over formless grooves, and the producers brought in outside collaborators to solo over the unfinished recordings. J.P. Carter played the echo-drenched trumpets that run throughout practically every song, Joseph Shabason contributed woodwinds, and soul singer Sibel Thrasher made this the first (and, to date, only) Destroyer album to feature prominent vocal harmonies.

JC/DC pieced all the disparate bits together like a puzzle, creating textures and hooks that turned these abstract soundscapes into something resembling pop music — albeit of a very freeform, experimental variety. In particular, "Savage Night at the Opera" is the closest Kaputt gets to sounding conventional, thanks to its au courant haze of Twin Peaks string synths. (Twin Peaks was then in the midst of a resurgence in the indie rock world; Mount Eerie's song "Between Two Mysteries" borrowed heavily from the show's score, and both Bastille and You Say Party had songs named after the character Laura Palmer, to cite a few examples.) Elsewhere, title cut "Kaputt" has a twinkling disco pulse that's catchy enough to make up for its six-minute-long runtime and chorusless structure, and opener "Chinatown" is anchored by old-school acoustic strums.

"I wasn't really sure where these songs came from," Bejar told Exclaim! shortly before the album's release. "Sometimes they barely seem like songs to me. That's part of the illusion."

Maybe there was something in the air. As bizarre as Kaputt had sounded on upon its release in January, the rest of 2011 was similarly filled with woodwinds and self-aware cheese. Bon Iver released "Beth/Rest," featuring electric piano pads straight out of a 1990s church service. M83's hit "Midnight City" culminated in a screaming sax solo. Kenny G began his modern reappraisal by appearing in Katy Perry's video for "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)." Colin Stetson became a full-blown indie star, nabbing a short-list nomination for the Polaris Music Prize (alongside Kaputt) and becoming the unofficial ambassador for the year's saxophone renaissance.

Listening back to Kaputt in 2021, what stands out most is that it no longer sounds all that radical. The schmaltz that Bejar once called "questionable" now seems almost pedestrian; no one bats an eye when Mac DeMarco apes yacht rock, when HAIM draw on the soft glow of Tango in the Night, or when Thundercat teams up with Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins on the same song. In recent years, Kenny G has collaborated with Kanye West and the Weeknd, showing just how far soft rock has come in its journey from the bargain bin to the mainstream.

The way Kaputt now seems safe and accessible is, of course, is the sign of an album ahead of its time. As an early adopter of smooth saxophone and lounge lizard swagger, Destroyer set the tone for the decade that followed, leaving the rest of the music world scrambling to catch up.