Max Shatan, ‘18
To his fans, Dan Bejar is a wry and verbose lyricist, which in combination with his eccentric sense of melody, oblique references, and cavalier rejection of the zeitgeist has made him a cult icon among music geeks. To his detractors, he is an unapologetic pessimist, a professional grump, and a perennial wet blanket, whose verbiage comes off as unnecessary and self-serving. Bejar and his work with backing band Destroyer is a divisive topic, and their new album Poison Season, released in August, is a divisive one indeed.
The shifting lineup that constitutes Destroyer has always had a knack for filtering Bejar’s off-kilter songcraft through sounds of the past. He dabbles in melodramatic glam rock in 2001’s Streethawk: A Seduction and understated lofi anti folk in 1996’s We’ll Build Them A Golden Bridge with the same amount of ease, never losing his trademark wit. His strongest nostalgic artistic statement was 2011’s Kaputt, which employed the stylings of 80’s Sophisti-pop and Easy Listening, two critically maligned genres that Destroyer reanimated with minimal irony. The album was critically acclaimed, and the biggest commercial success of Bejar’s career.
The unexpected success of Kaputt naturally put inordinate pressure on Poison Season, that record’s follow-up. Although Bejar insists on the former album that “I write poetry for myself,” the obvious desire to please a range of fans makes this latest effort noticeably less confident. Poison Season is a transitional record, one that incorporates the breathy saxophones and gently whirring synthesizers of Kaputt while experimenting with other elements. Most obvious here is the orchestra, which weaves in and out of Poison Season, most starkly on the opening track “Times Square, Poison Season I.” Working with arranger Stephan Urdell, Bejar seeks to add a classical component to a stylistic cauldron that is already overflowing with Philly soul, synthpop, and new wave. While inspired, the result is incongruent with some of the album’s less composed moments; the arrangements can come off as dry and robotic, echoing the canned strings used on 2004’s Your Blues, which is not a flattering comparison.
This is not to say that Poison Season isn’t an enjoyable listen. When all of Bejar’s scattered elements manage to combine in the right way, the result is fantastic. “Times Square” is an almost flawless pop gem, sounding like it could have been ripped right out of Bowie’s Young Americans. The band shuffles breathlessly under a Sanborn-esque sax line, producing some of the album’s sunnier moments. “Archer on the Beach” and “Midnight Meet the Rain” strut confidently with a fantastic groove that is unfortunately absent from most of the album.
However, as is usually the case with Destroyer albums, the lyrics are invariably the subject under the most scrutiny. Over twenty years, Bejar has amassed a small library’s worth. Endlessly quotable, hysterically perspicacious, and acid-tongued, everyone has personal favorites: “I am a tastemaker and I kill things/I am not a tastemaker and I kill things,” “Her interests are classical at best,” “Sha-la-la, wouldn’t you say?” Bejar is one of the most interesting and enigmatic lyricists of the past twenty years, but just as eccentric is his delivery. Some of his phrases unfold over several measures, with so many contradictory clauses that his intent becomes hard to track, obscured by his trademark Vancouverite yelp. Fans of his earlier work may find Poison Season disappointing in this regard. Bejar sounds exhausted, even uninterested throughout the album, and very few lines jump out at the listener, though the songs are as well- crafted as ever, with stanzas that careen through different dimensions and levels of vernacular.
However, these gripes are not enough to bring down Poison Season completely. While the album may not be as obviously beautiful as Kaputt, as catchy and engaging as Streethawk, or as lyrically byzantine as 1998’s City of Daughters, the album nevertheless stands as a solid entry into the Destroyer canon, and only further cements Dan Bejar’s position as one of the most interesting songwriters in Canada and one of the most singular cult figures in the music world.