Dan Bejar has an ear for melancholy, and every record he’s ever made as Destroyer refracts sadness in new shades.
Dan Bejar has an ear for melancholy, and every record he’s ever made as Destroyer refracts sadness in new shades. Recently he’s been traveling through time. Last time around, he drove his DeLorean straight into the collective memory of the ‘80s and wrote one of the best records of the decade, Kaputt, full of lush synths and painful nostalgia at the loss of childhood via the closing of Melody Maker. It was a record that seemed well outside of his comfort zone and absolutely improbable coming from the man who wrote the guitar, story-based Destroyer’s Rubies and Trouble in Dreams, but then again, who would have thought that a band like Talk Talk would have gone from “It’s My Life” to making heroin-addled post-rock records perfect for bong rips in your first apartment? Legions of new fans, drawn to his music through brilliant hooks and smooth saxophone solos, may be disappointed to discover that Bejar has little interest in staying in this new comfort zone on his latest, Poison Season.
The record’s neither exceptionally poppy nor exactly inviting to mainstream ears. The nearest equivalent in recent releases would probably be Julia Holter’s Loud City Song, with its blend of jazz and rock cacophonies and swelling orchestral arrangements. As opposed to that record’s journey through the sonic cityscape, Poison Season feels like a lengthy drive down the Turnpike, gazing at urban decay with sadness, ears perking up when echoes of Springsteen make their way across the FM frequencies and winding up in Times Square, back where you started, somewhat changed. That song and its variations make up most of the record’s backbone, and its repetitious renditions show how accomplished Bejar has become as since the beginnings of his career. I won’t lie: at times, I missed the focused pop of Kaputt and its own particular style, but these records are so different that it feels like a disservice to compare them. Unlike critics, press releases always will make that comparison, and Merge believes he’s set his sights on the ‘70s with this record. Much has been made of Springsteenian tracks like “Dream Lover” and “The River,” and while they’re both fascinating tracks they stand in a stark contrast to the rest of the album, with lush orchestration and sharp horns and quiet piano tunes riding alongside Bejar’s voice. They’re striking, fun songs, and he’s obviously having a great time, but they’re not his best work. However, they’re good enough to keep the record afloat and not distract from his greatest skill set.
As always, the lyrics steal the show. Bejar’s allusion-crammed musings always make for fascinating listening and pondering (he has one particularly funny pun based on John Carpenter movies), but there’s something else to his lyrics that make them compelling and heart-wrenching. He just understands the flowing beauty of words in ways that are lost on many of us. It’s like hearing the words “cellar door” in such a way that the words have an aesthetic pleasure divorced from their meaning. For example, he sings on “The River,” “Lily-covered livers/ The rich man shivers/ For reasons unknown in the wind.” This may sound like pretentious hogwash, but when you hear Bejar sing it, he sells it to you like no one else can, his smooth croak humming like an engine pulling you towards a final destination.
And what a destination! The bookends “Times Square: Poison Season” are some of the most gorgeous music Bejar’s ever released, and I’d even argue that the first of the two tracks is perhaps the best evocation of New York sadness since Liza Minelli sang “New York, New York” for the first time in Scorsese’s eponymous film. Poison Season is yet another dramatic shift for an artist who can’t be simply defined by a genre or by what makes him popular and acclaimed throughout the 20 years he’s been making music as Destroyer. He’s still himself, and this record is most definitely his and his alone. Who else could make this kind of sadness sound so sweet?