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 thread of 13 tunes, each track a barbed knot, hangs slack as it first snakes into the ear. Be patient. Play it again. The album will soon burrow deep and find the reward center of your hypothalamus. On the fourth or fifth spin (it may take a few more), something miraculous will happen. Twisty song structures and winding instrumental asides will straighten out. They’ll reveal aural riches. And then — synapses will blaze, dopamine will rush.
Dan Bejar can be as prickly as his songs. During interviews he often alternates between angry, get-off-my-lawn windbaggery and staunch, rockist heroism. I tend to play down his rants against contemporary pop stardom. Better to focus on his full-throated advocacy for pure musicianship. (Yes, I realize both sentiments are, for him, interchangeable. I try to ignore that too.) Kaputt, 2011’s schlock marvel, brought Destroyer critical acclaim and a much larger audience. To the surprise of no one, Bejar became unhappy with fame. He especially loathed its side duties, those big festival slots and late-night television appearances. So he retreated, hoping “the world at large” would “[forget] Kaputt ever happened.” That‘s what he told Pitchfork in a recent feature. (Bejar repeated those words, more or less, to DIY.) To which I reply: Fat chance, Dan.
The passage of time has, if anything, only ginned up expectations. But Poison Season — no retread, no retreat — shrugs off such accumulated baggage with aplomb. It eschews Kaputt’s smooth sounds for a sneaky, slanted kind of grandeur. Despite an overarching shagginess, this is an almost seamless artistic and conceptual exercise. Poison Season makes its predecessor appear minor by comparison, like a tuneful lark.
Destroyer’s tenth full-length release is an overcorrection, an act of penance of sorts. Bejar has pared down his sonic palette to the barest of acoustic bones. Sayonara, electronic instrumentation and studio trickery! Living and breathing performances rule this roost instead. Even the guitar, that back-to-basics stalwart, plays a mere supporting role on Poison Season. (Alas, he’s also chucked out background vocals. Too bad. Sibel Thrasher’s soulful interjections remain my favorite part of Kaputt.) Horns, keys, and strings once embellished Destroyer’s songs here and there. Now they waltz hand in hand into the spotlight, through shifting, sometimes amorphous, compositions. Bejar can’t help but succumb to his basest pop instincts at least twice. “Dream Lover” and “Times Square”, glorious rock numbers both, may be your initial favorites. If so, savor them. The vast majority of Poison Season spurns such undemanding pleasures.
In fact, a song called “Hell” — do note its title — better represents the album as a whole. And it does so with lyrical brevity and musical wit. “Hell” begins with jabbing, ostinato string phrases and a regal trumpet melody. Bejar sings of “coming home” to life on the road, like “a wheel set into motion.” A low-brass oompah enters as he evokes homicidal politicians and flyby angels. The song takes a deep breath; its strings lilt into a tremolo. Piano chords fill the silence. They underscore a bit of self-loathing (“Look what I’ve become/ scum/ a relic”). Two drumsticks tap and then “Hell” swings, full gear, into a brassy celebration. “It’s hell down here, it’s hell,” Bejar repeats, mantra-like. Out of nowhere, a flute trills once (and only once, on the entire album). By the end, I picture a row of demonic Rockettes performing a spirited kickline. It’s the single best image that can match such flamboyant desperation. In less than three-and-a-half minutes, we’ve gotten a feverish portrait of show business. (I suppose?) We’ve also gotten a breathless, swirling tour of two or three musical styles. If this isn’t what you’d call expert songwriting and craft, I don’t know what is. And to think, “Hell” isn’t even Poison Season’s finest track.
Bejar has spoken, with a touch of pride, about his maturation as a vocalist. “This is the first record that I’ve ever done that comes close to my idea of myself as a singer,” he told Pitchfork. This “idea” of himself “as a singer” has to include late-period Bob Dylan. Few artists find inspiration in Dylan’s post-Time Out of Mind vocal phrasing. (If they’re out there, and are younger than 50, please let me know.) Bejar doesn’t exactly mimic Dylan, and his voice is by no means shot. But he borrows key stylistic elements, particularly with regard to breathing and inflection. I recently listened to Shadows in the Night back to back with Poison Season. The similarities were illuminating, if not surprising. Shadows is, after all, a Sinatra covers album. Dan Bejar joked to Pitchfork that his new sound was, in part, “Destroyer at the Sands.” So: Bejar meets Sinatra meets Bejar meets Dylan meets Sinatra. Makes perfect sense to me.
Poison Season resembles nothing else on the musical landscape today. But deep influences and orthogonal comparisons do flash into mind during its 53-minute runtime. Strands of Astral Weeks weave through the jazziest of these tunes (“Archer on the Beach”, “Forces from Above”, “Solace’s Bride”). You can hear Bowie’s mid-70s plastic soul most on “Times Square”, but also on patches of “Sun in the Sky”, “Bangkok”, and “The River”. “Dream Lover” is as blatant a love letter to Springsteen’s Born to Run heyday as you can get. (If I didn’t know better, I’d swear it contains a Clarence Clemons tenor-sax sample.) The best homage of all is also the weirdest, and it comes on “Midnight Meets the Rain”. The song channels Alan Tew's “The Big One”, also known as the theme to The People’s Court. As you can tell, Dan Bejar hasn’t yet lost his arch sense of humor.
Like Streethawk: A Seduction, Destroyer’s fourth LP, Poison Season ends where it begins. The album opens with “Times Square, Poison Season I”, a hazy criticism of the record industry. (I guess?) It closes with “Times Square, Poison Season II”, a murky rebuke to commercial radio. (Maybe?) Between these bookends, Dan Bejar employs dream-logic lyricism to air a multiplicity of grievances. There are moments of great beauty (“Girl in a Sling”) and spirit (“Dream Lover”) within the thematic darkness. Poison Season’s first and last tracks meet in the middle on “Times Square”. When they join together, every woe evaporates. In his Pitchfork interview, Bejar pondered how he would respond if we somehow stopped caring about his work. “I’m not gonna come to a grinding halt if, all of a sudden, people aren’t writing about a Destroyer record.” I play Poison Season again and consider such a world. Ha, ha, ha. Fat chance, Dan. A
This review was originally published July 26. Poison Season is out this week.