Destroyer: Poison Season review – overwhelming, aggravating, brilliant

Dan Bejar found unexpected late-career success with 2011’s Kaputt, and seems uncomfortable with the high expectations for its followup – but it turns out to be another triumph

Destroyer has always felt like an oddly heavy name for the band led by Canadian singer-songwriter Dan Bejar, but it does at least accurately describe his approach to self-promotion. In May, Bejar gave Pitchfork his first interview about his 10th solo album. Expectations for the record were high. In 2011, 15 years into a quixotic, prolific career (he has made several more albums as a member of indie-rock supergroups the New Pornographers and Swan Lake), he unexpectedly had a breakthrough with Kaputt. Saturated in smoochy saxophone, fretless bass and sleek, sad synthesisers, it sounded like nothing he’d ever done before – indeed, nothing like anyone had done since about 1989. It landed him on festival bills, late-night TV shows, album-of-the-year lists and the shortlist for Canada’s Polaris music prize.

This late-in-the-day influx of attention left Bejar rather nonplussed. In his heroically cranky Pitchfork interview, he did his damnedest to quash anticipation. Saying that, at 42, he was old and out of touch, he grumbled about Coachella, his hometown of Vancouver, Taylor Swift and pop music in general. He described Poison Season as “dour”, explained that he’d omitted the two catchiest songs, and even apologised for parts of it. He might as well slap a sticker on every copy saying, “Advisory: This is not the follow-up to Kaputt.”

Indeed it’s not. Success hasn’t neutered Bejar’s stubborn determination to overhaul his sound on every record, and the drum machines and synths are gone. But nor does it require apologies. In fact, Poison Season is an audacious, baroque song cycle that makes its predecessor look lightweight. It suggests golden-age Hollywood, 80s Bob Dylan, Astral Weeks, Van Dyke Parks, Bowie’s “plastic soul” period, and Springsteen for people who are suspicious of Springsteen – a cohort that includes Bejar himself. It sounds necessary, like the work of someone trying to unravel some life-or-death conundrums without worrying about whether it resonates with anybody else. “When I’m writing, I’m trying to get to the heart of something,” he told Pitchfork. “And then when I’m singing, I’m trying even harder to get at the heart of something.”

Ah, the singing. Bejar’s polarising voice, high in the mix, has evolved into a fastidious hybrid of North American Neil Tennant and Dylan on Broadway. The best thing about his decision to include three iterations of the excellent Times Square is the multiple opportunities to hear him enunciate the word “square” like he’s trying to invent a new vowel.

It’s an appropriately theatrical tone for an album that unfolds like an urban musical in which the city will dazzle you and potentially kill you. Dream Lover, which Bejar made his band record after just two rehearsals, bombs along like the E Street Band being ejected from a bar. “Oh shit!” he gasps over a squealing saxophone. “Here comes the sun.” The devastatingly beautiful The River advises the listener to get out of a series of towns that resemble “a comedy of souls, a plot thick with holes”. The characters in Times Square – Jesus, Jacob, Judy and Jack – feel like rejected candidates for a Lou Reed story-song, robbed of narrative and reduced to the starkest emotions.

Rarely explicit, Poison Season sketches a landscape and leaves the listener to fill in the details. It seems to evoke 1970s New York, with episodes of cop-show funk (Midnight Meet the Rain), bustling Latin percussion (Forces from Above) and jazzy horns that swarm like hot-tempered traffic. The beatless chamber-pop of Girl in a Sling functions as a cool breeze on an album that often thrums like a heatwave.

Although accessible by Destroyer’s pre-Kaputt standards, it’s still an overwhelming, occasionally aggravating piece of work on first exposure, because Bejar likes to point in two directions at once. The crispness of his delivery leads you to expect coherent stories, but he offers only strobing images and cryptic elisions: good luck unravelling the meaning of Archer on the Beach’s darkling MOR. Exquisite arrangements furnish howlingly bleak observations: just as Hell kicks into a jaunty, showbiz swing, Bejar starts singing, “It’s hell down here, it’s hell.” Sketchy vignettes of individual relationships are dwarfed by cosmic visions of fire, ice and stars. The seesawing perspectives could make you queasy. The world is a cruel and terrifying place, but then there’s love and empathy, but then the world is a cruel terrifying place, etcetera. “Careful now,” advises Archer on the Beach. “Watch your step.”

Poison Season demonstrates that the opposite of embracing unexpected success isn’t rejecting it: it’s carrying on as if nothing outside the universe of the songs matters. It’s not an ingratiating record, but nor is it wilfully obtuse. Everything that is potentially offputting – the lyrical opacity, the sonic excess, that voice – is what makes it such a striking and involving piece of work. In fact, it’s Bejar’s best. The only bad news for the man himself is that he’s just raised expectations even higher.


Dorian Lynskey

The GuardianTramp

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