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. Part of it also comes from Bejar himself, a mercurial, difficult guy who refuses to chase attention. “I was just trying to lie low and make sure that the world at large forgot Kaputt ever happened,” he said in a recent interview. And while his new album, Poison Season, may not erase Kaputt from anyone’s memory, it is yet another engaging, tangled, beautiful environment, one that will be equally hard to forget.
Poison Season feels like the yacht rock of its predecessor has been moved just inland, within sight of the water, but planted in an urban environment — specifically a classic version of Manhattan, one rooted in Broadway glitter and Times Square grime in equal portions. The lux saxophone that ran through Kaputt is joined by a whole flock of glam orchestral pieces, with Bejar’s characters treading the boards as if scored by Van Dyke Parks. And, true to form, characters recur, popping up in different songs but without a clear narrative. Destroyer delivers all of the flourish and drama of a big-stage production, but can’t be contained by the audience expectations that would come with it.
While Kaputt stuck to its guns, daring you to blink at its outré genre choice, Poison Season doubles down, darting between more of that album’s groove, chamber pop, Latin percussion, smooth jazz, and more. The summer sun sets on the city on “Archer on the Beach”; rubbery bass and sweaty piano chords lay a groundwork, horn solos puffing out of existence as they reach their apex, as if the heat turned them to vapor. The languid “Girl in a Sling” sighs and swoons, strings barely trailing Bejar’s vocals. That song, like most on the album and much of Bejar’s catalog, feels like a close-spoken conversation. “Girl I know what you’re going through/ I’m going there too,” he coos in that nasal, sympathetic way that only Bejar can.
(Read: Destroyer in 10 Songs)
After the first iteration of the “Times Square” theme, highlight “Dream Lover” opens the show with a burst of energy. Rather than straight Springsteen mimicry, it’s the sound of conscious, performative Springsteen mimicry, the sort of pastiche that comes with with a knowing wink. “Oh shit, here comes the sun,” Bejar repeats, following the Beatles reference with an ur-Springsteen note on “lovers on the run.” It’d be cloying if it weren’t so pitch-perfect. Not long after, he unfurls “Hell”, a song title that promises more burning energy, but in fact builds on sharp string stabs and a regal flugelhorn before stepping into a pop saunter. “It’s hell down here, it’s hell,” Bejar repeats, all over the sunniest guitar and bounciest rhythm. Later, “Midnight Meet the Rain” features the biggest horn riff imaginable, the kind of thing that would open an ’80s cop show or introduce a character in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. But though he gets huge, Bejar isn’t goofy. “Raise a toast to the world of scum around us closing in,” he insists, before again questioning his own surroundings: “I visit the symphony, I smell a rat.”
On the rumbling, rumbaing “Forces From Above”, Bejar questions the purity and intention of religion (“forces from above denied you the right to be free in your own way”), music (“I got paid and then I wrote a song”), and performance (“I tried to follow the lines to the letter”). As always, the intertextuality of Bejar’s writing is a challenge and a pleasure; those familiar with his catalog will gleefully unpack references to “freedom,” chase Judy and Jack’s stories (explicit and implicit) through the 13 songs, hear echoes in non-verbal melodies. But the album will also work for Destroyer novices, if a little less easily than Kaputt. Perhaps that’s what Bejar’s fighting against: the ease with which his last album went down, the way you could listen to Kaputt and let it wash over you. Poison Season is beautiful, haunting, thrilling, but inherently challenging, as Bejar challenges himself and his listeners equally.
Essential Tracks: “Dream Lover”, “Girl in a Sling”, and “Midnight Meet the Rain”