Poison Season

Dan Bejar is being contrarian again. Kaputt, his ninth album as Destroyer, was the first protest – rejecting 15 year’s worth of bristling indie records for a sound that combined cocktail-hour ambience, Avalon-era production and a smattering of light jazz. Cool and aloof, Bejar recorded the vocals wandering around his home or lying on the couch, eyes half-shut, while the instrumentals were pieced together on a computer. As he expressed it to Pitchfork in 2012: "Fuck rock music. Let’s end this".

Despite his best intentions, though, Kaputt‘s hotel-lobby disco was oddly prescient, resonating more widely than any Destroyer record before it. The album’s success launched the band into two years of world touring and endless conversations with music journalists about ‘chillwave’. As he approached middle age, Bejar was having his first real encounter with Big Indie and its commercial imperatives. The experience was mixed. Ultimately, it provided him the capital – and his band the chops – to embark on the high stakes studio venture that resulted in the new album. The demoralising effects of his brush with indie stardom, meanwhile, came to form much of the album’s subject matter – Bejar’s own poison season.

In response, on this new LP Bejar has decided to act his age, veering into the incontrovertibly uncool world of "pre-pop" Broadway showtunes and big band jazz. It’s an avuncular indulgence in the kind of music that populated his mother’s record collection when the infant Bejar was impervious to fashion. The whole thing seems to have been engineered to alienate the Gen Y consumers who embraced Kaputt so wholeheartedly, winking gaily at figures like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and the buttoned-up dons of the Great American Songbook. Destroyer’s younger fans would do well to withhold their distaste, because Poison Season is all class.

The arrangements – horns, flute, strings and a vast percussion section – are subtle and expressionistic, reading Bejar’s strange and lyrical turns of phrase with precision. The singer himself presides with restraint over the compositions. Prior to Kaputt, Bejar’s vocals came on like an assault; here he recalibrates himself as a kind of rough crooner, even letting his voice drown, occasionally, in the instruments’ rising hum.

Reluctantly, Bejar has included a couple of bona fide pop songs – the blustering ‘Dream Lover’ and breezy centrepiece ‘Times Square’. These tracks are bright and propulsive, grabbing wildly at The Boss’ coat tails. On an album that’s often too languorous for radio, they function as convenient singles. They also do an excellent job of capturing the Destroyer live band in motion – a group of musicians who, according to Bejar, will devour any song you throw at them "like a pack of wild dogs". The remainder of Poison Season is all piano ballads and disenchantment, bathed in mournful strings. These singles are like the action sequences spurring on Bejar’s bitter musical drama; the fits of wide-eyed optimism that precede a fall.

Bejar has described Poison Season as "The Waste Land and George Gershwin mashed together". It’s a disorienting formula, pairing toe-tapping blasts of sax and conga with melancholic verse about "the world of scum around us closing in". Every unresolved chorus of strings is matched by a disarming evasion ("Hey, what’s got into Sunny?"), and the band, when it begins to swing, signifies despair: "I was born bright, now I’m dark as a well/A kite washed up on the shoreline/And it’s hell down here. It’s hell".

The album does contain genuine moments of levity – as on the beguiling ‘Sun In The Sky’, where cathartic horns slide like a boat down the back of a wave, before bobbing back up into daylight. On the whole, Destroyer’s tenth album is determinedly, if stylishly, out of step. It is not, however, the recalcitrant middle finger that Bejar foreshadowed – or at least joked about – in interviews. Instead, Poison Season is a luxurious creation, dappled in sunlight, and summoning all the redemptive power of pop.

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