Words by Brian Salvatore
In 2002, I saw Destroyer as part of the CMJ Marathon’s Merge showcase. After the band’s set, the crowd was dazzled and near speechless as we stumbled towards the exit. But I wasn’t silent because of a stunning performance; I was silent because to me the band – and especially its singer – sounded like a poor man’s David Bowie to me, and I didn’t get the adulation.
Looking back, I can now admit that I wasn’t exactly being fair to Dan Bejar and his rotating cast of musicians that get billed as Destroyer. The songs had a reach that exceeded their grasp – lyrically they were frequently brilliant, but instrumentally, they didn’t match up to the ambition being put forth in the lyrics. As a vocalist, Bejar is both detached and emotive, and can be one of the more affecting singers out there when he wants to be – and can’t help the natural Bowie-lilt that creeps into his voice.
On 2011’s Kaputt, Bejar finally found an instrumental sound that matched the tone of his voice. The record was caked in ancient synths, smooth saxophones, and the mid-80s production sheen glossed over the proceedings in a way that framed each song in a context previously unavailable on his earlier records. His dramatic delivery no longer seemed out of place, but rather fit right in – for the first time, he didn’t seem to be floating above the backing track, but now right in the throes of it.
Poison Season doesn’t tread on the same ground, but it continues Kaputt’s dedication to expanding the sound of the band into something different. This record has lush string and horn arrangements that truly are unmatched in indie-rock. The record begins with “Times Square, Poison Season 1,” and the tone of midtown Manhattan begins to creep into the record, beginning with the orchestrations that wouldn’t sound out of place on 42nd Street.
“Times Square” appears on the record thrice – it both begins and ends the record in its “Poison Season” incarnations, and it lands right in the middle as a more upbeat, rock and roll version. That two-word titled, more ‘rocking’ version, is one of the tracks on the record that would sound most at home on FM radio in the late 70s/early 80s, alongside Billy Joel songs with Liberty DeVito sax solos. This record, sonically, is the closest that Bejar has gotten to actually recalling Bowie – despite my 20 year old self’s claims – there is a Hunky Dory-era influence around every corner, but it is filtered through a much more mainstream, middle of the road sound at times.
It usually wouldn’t be a positive note for me to include the name of Billy Joel, let alone his sax player, in a review, but there is something immediate and intimate about what Bejar does on the more traditionally accompanied tracks on the record. Joel, Elton John, Cat Stevens – those are paragons of writing songs that sounded like they were being sung to you – no pretense, just someone sharing their soul with you. Bejar never really commits that fully – there is an ever-present wink and drink in hand vibe to every song – but there are moments – like the aforementioned “Times Square” – where Bejar comes awfully close to writing what sounds like it would’ve been a hit in 1979 – despite the first lyric being “Jesus is beside himself; Jacob is in a state of decimation.”
But it is when the instrumentation gets less 5-piece rock band that the record really soars. “Hell” and “Girl in a Sling” are baroque pop songs in the most literal sense – it sounds like Bejar sitting in with a local chamber ensemble. Elsewhere, like on “Midnight Meet the Rain,” the expanded lineup sounds like the People’s Court theme song, with all of the drama of that anthemic piece of music intact. Things like wah wah pedals and bongos are used – I think – unironically, which seems like a huge step outside of the usual Destroyer repertoire.
In other words, Dan Bejar’s composition and arranging skills finally catch up to his ever-present flair for the dramatic and lyrical acumen here. While Kaputt might have hinted at a band looking to grow outside of their usual trappings, Poison Season burns down the old confines and lets everything – the washing synths of 1985, the Tin Pan Alley arrangements of 1931, as well as the horn breaks of 1981 – come inside the Destroyer tent, and simply makes the best record they possibly can.
© August 28th, 2015
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