Release Date: Aug 28, 2015
Record label: Merge
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Indie Pop, Chamber Pop
Reviewing music objectively is never easy. Prejudices run deep, favouritism even deeper. As someone who has been playing the music hack game for a fair while now I like to think that my writing is largely free of the former. However only the most naïve music writer could think they had escaped favouritism and its dictatorial power over musical preferences.
The first full-length Destroyer release since 2011's charting Kaputt -- with the Antonio Luque-penned Five Spanish Songs EP, and his bands the New Pornographers and Hello, Blue Roses' Brill Bruisers and WZO, respectively, dropping in the interim -- 2015's Poison Season marks prolific songsmith Dan Bejar's tenth LP with the project, and it's an intensely wistful, strings- and horns-washed epic exploration of New York city life. At nearly an hour in length, it feels immense, but more so from its unexpectedly cinematic stylings than from playing time -- with rotating, scene-setting arrangements (rock, jazz, chamber music) and beat-poetic narrative vignettes of a gritty reality seemingly from another time, or another mind. The string ensemble arrangements on the sparse opener, "Times Square, Poison Season I," proclaim yet another change in texture between albums for Bejar.
Destroyer is typically viewed as a glorified solo vehicle, with singer-songwriter Dan Bejar joined by a rotating cast of backing players. At one time this was true: the Vancouver musician started the band by himself in the mid-'90s, and his first few albums were centred on his guitar and voice. And although the project has since grown in scope, the solo image continues to be perpetuated by the fact that Bejar appears alone in promotional photos, including the one that graces the cover of Destroyer's tenth full-length, Poison Season.Despite appearances, however, Poison Season is anything but a solo affair.
Dan Bejar might very well be the last great Romantic of a generation. Too sentimental to be entirely sober and too wise to confuse the richness of sentiment with the hollowness of nostalgia, Bejar’s 10 albums as leader of the Vancouver-based Destroyer read like tangled love letters to a civilization in the throes of a well-deserved decline. I consider it no great exaggeration when I say that few writers in any medium can claim Dan Bejar’s mastery of the English language.
Many musicians have had to grapple with the challenge of how to follow up an album which has thrust them into the spotlight. Should you replicate that sound and build on its success? Add a children’s choir and try to write a Christmas Number One? Or resist all of that, throw yourself out of your comfort zone and strike out in a new direction? If you know anything about Dan Bejar aka Destroyer you could guess that he would choose the latter route. His last album ‘Kaputt’ was nearly 15 years into his career but it was his most successful, the album’s quasi-ironic-sounding synth, drum machines and sax-filled songs delightfully weaving between his sharp-witted lyrics.
Canadian singer-songwriter Dan Bejar has been releasing albums under the name Destroyer since 1996. The most recent of these, 2011’s Kaputt, was a luxurious, addictive blend of Bejar’s trademark cryptic witticisms and the smooth sounds of AM radio circa 1980. Kaputt was outstanding album and a fashionable one, too. Its reappropriation of AOR tropes chimed with a number of similarly feted albums released around the same time, from Metronomy’s The English Riviera to Bombay Bicycle Club’s A Different Kind Of Fix.
There’s some difficulty in encapsulating Dan Bejar’s continual growth as a songwriter, seeing as time hasn’t made him any less perplexing to understand. Often close to teetering over the edge of manic cool into casual, sophisticated pop opulence, he’s now officially made it into his fifth living decade accompanied by a sound that rightly suits him. It came as a surprise for many to witness him utilize the saxophone with such sincerity in 2012’s Kaputt, an album so rich and lushly artificial that it even brought back the term Muzak for the indie-minded crowd.
Dan Bejar has made a habit—practically an ethos—of never repeating himself, and Poison Season, his follow-up to 2011's Kaputt, an '80s nightclub soundtrack as imagined by a guy sitting in the corner of the club reading instead of doing coke in the bathroom, is an incredibly savvy effort. It's starkly divergent in some of its pre-pop balladic tendencies while also remaining atmospherically redolent of its predecessor, as in its liberal use of alto sax and flute. While Bejar has always possessed a refined sense of melodicism (he's a member of the New Pornographers, after all), much of his past work has been rambling and impenetrable, the musings of a drunken bard yowling oblique bohemian poetry at the moon, with arrangements that often took jarring left turns.
Dan Bejar’s Destroyer took a similarly effortless sax-rich 80s as a key influence on 2011’s Kaputt. Nevertheless, for anyone unprepared for such high levels of smoothness – especially after 15 years of comparatively lo-fi, guitar-rich efforts – it was modestly startling. On his 11th album, that gloss is pared down, revealing just how well-crafted and intricate Bejar’s songs have become.
Destroyer’s Dan Bejar revisits the same song on three separate occasions during 10th album ‘Poison Season’ – his first since 2011’s sax-filled ‘Kaputt’ received rave reviews and turned the Vancouver-based musician into an unlikely star. Opener ‘Times Square, Poison Season I’ is a wry dig at record industry fakery, as Bejar sniffs at the sight of “[i]Artists and repertoire/Hand in hand[/i]” over woozy strings. Final track ‘Times Square, Poison Season II’ takes the same conceit but turns it jolly courtesy of stamp-along piano that could have been lifted from the knees-up finale of a Broadway musical.
Dan Bejar's intellect is so formidable it feels like an event, and Destroyer has, for 12 years or so, been indie rock's most rewarding intellectual project. You listen to Destroyer to hear the smartest person at a party mutter funny and erudite things in your ear. Even by 2006, Bejar had generated a world deep and manifold enough that fans of his made, and passed around, a Dan Bejar lyric generator.
With each new Destroyer album, some portion of Dan Bejar’s listeners refuse to accept that his mind takes its own meandering path rather than returning to the musical world he just exquisitely detailed. Plenty of threads tie his work together, but there is no straight, predictable line. Part of that frustration and refusal is due to the fact that Destroyer albums are frequently masterpieces, the kind you want more of.
Listeners never know what a new Destroyer album will sound like. Much of that is by design, of course—mastermind Dan Bejar is known to try to totally revamp the act's sound with each record. But from album to album, that uncertainty can grow frustrating, particularly in follow-ups to well-received and well-reviewed albums. Bejar, who in interviews seems as annoyed by popularity and press as prime-era Bob Dylan, enjoys subverting expectations to such a degree that at times it feels like he's intentionally getting rid of some good ideas because they sound too much like the last album.
Destroyer's Dan Bejar is one of indie rock's most inventive wild cards. His last album, 2011's excellent Kaputt, was an absurdist take on early-Eighties yacht pop. His latest asks a question: What if the David Bowie of Space Oddity and the Bruce Springsteen of The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle were the same person? Bejar stacks rainy-New York sax magic, sad-astronaut strings and hippie jazzbo grooving to make songs that are as wryly hilarious as they are weirdly affecting.
The gap between reality and ruse in Dan Bejar's work as Destroyer is often a heady, maddening space to occupy. While there's still mystery and misdirection on his new album, Poison Season is nakedly ambitious and utterly satisfying. Compared to his dense lyrics in previous efforts, Bejar says less, but his phrasing and delivery render places, ideas and people vividly.
Let’s get right to the point: Poison Season is a caustic, beguiling masterpiece. In a year already crammed with skyscrapers, Destroyer’s new LP looms taller still. Like me, you may, at first, bristle at its atonal flourishes and refrigerator poetry. But early impressions can be misleading. This ….
The press materials for Poison Season, the 11th record Dan Bejar has recorded under the name Destroyer, cite David Bowie’s chamber-pop classic Hunky Dory as an influence this time around. The touchstones—ornate strings, piano flourishes—are certainly there, but Poison Season is a looser, less-constrained affair. With its saxophones, bongos, and violins, it’s more of a Young Americans-Hunky Dory hybrid.
The first two measured refrains of Poison Season are a palette cleansing sorbet of piano and stately strings that could be introducing a melancholy film noir scene, a tear-jerking number from a 20s stage performer, or even the opening of an ‘80s power ballad. Bejar's rasping whisper of a vocal joins the affair, like a familiar character popping up in an unfamiliar story that you've joined halfway through, as he opens with the rather wonderfully silly and biblical line "Jesus is beside himself, Jacob's in a state of decimation". It's a line we'll hear three more times, on the three iterations of this same song (“Times Square”) that form the opening, centre point and closing of the record.
Dan Bejar is being contrarian again. Kaputt, his ninth album as Destroyer, was the first protest – rejecting 15 year's worth of bristling indie records for a sound that combined cocktail-hour ambience, Avalon-era production and a smattering of light jazz. Cool and aloof, Bejar recorded the vocals wandering around his home or lying on the couch, eyes half-shut, while the instrumentals were pieced together on a computer.
Destroyer — Poison Season (Merge)Daniel Bejar’s Destroyer scored big with 2011’s Kaputt, which pitted the songwriter’s elegant abstractions against a 1970s soft-FM backdrop, yacht-rockish saxophone fills punctuating his wry ellipses. He hit the zeitgeist head on, gaining a critical and commercial momentum that had, until this point, eluded him. It was my least favorite Destroyer album ever — once you’ve lived through constant rotation of “Baker Street” once, it’s hard to ironic about these things — but lots of people differed.