Destroyer Poison Season

[Merge; 2015]

Styles: singer-songwriter
Others: Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, Anne Carson

Dan Bejar might very well be the last great Romantic of a generation. Too sentimental to be entirely sober and too wise to confuse the richness of sentiment with the hollowness of nostalgia, Bejar’s 10 albums as leader of the Vancouver-based Destroyer read like tangled love letters to a civilization in the throes of a well-deserved decline. I consider it no great exaggeration when I say that few writers in any medium can claim Dan Bejar’s mastery of the English language. Still fewer do so while remaining so acutely tuned to both its great absurdity and its still greater poison.

Four years since he last took leave of us, Poison Season arrives at the conclusion of Bejar’s longest break between studio albums in his 20-year career as Destroyer. And it seems fair to say that the timing of the hiatus was no great coincidence. Whatever its virtues or its failures, Poison Season will no doubt bear the unfortunate burden of following in the immediate footsteps of 2011’s Kaputt: an album most critics consider among the best of Bejar’s career, an album this particular critic considers among the greatest artistic accomplishments of our young century. You don’t make a masterpiece without paying one price or another, and it was perhaps no great surprise when, two year later, Bejar made the utterly baffling decision to follow Kaputt with a slim EP of Spanish-language cover songs plastered with a promotional sticker declaring “It was 2013. The English language seemed spent, despicable, not easily singable.” Grim words from one of our bastard mother tongue’s greatest practitioners, but then again, you don’t just write a track like “Suicide Demo for Kara Walker” without laying utter waste to Merriam-Webster and Strunk & White along the way.

Now that Poison Season is finally in our hands and on our hard drives, it’s clear that the last four years have given Bejar plenty of time to get thoroughly inside his own head and let his pen marinate. An ouroboros drama in three parts, Poison Season begins as it ends and circumnavigates the globe in the span between. It’s a delightful mess of a record, at once maddeningly elusive and refreshingly straightforward. Stylistically, the album finds Bejar expanding on the palette of warped disco and smooth pseudo-jazz that he drew from so deftly on Kaputt, but compositionally the record feels more like a return to the scattered and fragmented musings of 2002’s oft-maligned This Night, an album that similarly followed in the immediate wake of a huge hit for Bejar. The result is an album that, on the one hand, feels much less focused or cohesive than Kaputt, but on the other hand comes across as all the more confident and playfully mature, precisely because it’s not trying to be.

Re-reading some of the reviews that accompanied the release of Kaputt, I’m reminded how much the specter of retromania haunted much of that album’s early hype. Released at the first crest of the 1980s comeback deluge, Bejar’s decision to forgo his usual classic rock accompaniment for synthesizers and jazz flutes might have initially come across as a shrewder marketing decision than it was a meaningful artistic statement. Four years later, now that the dust has settled and the novelty has worn off enough to reveal the complexity beneath the veneer, it’s clear that Bejar will get the last laugh. Achingly sensual and devastatingly bleak, Bejar summoned up the sounds of Steely Dan and Ryuichi Sakamoto with all the breezy gravity of an aging bon vivant in threadbare tweed enjoying his last glass of a particularly good sagrantino the night before an appointment with the firing squad.

Very much its predecessor’s heir, Poison Season finds Bejar with one eye cocked squarely at the past, though now in more ways than one. Like many left-field artists suddenly plucked from perceived obscurity for all the wrong reasons, Bejar seems particularly ambivalent toward the unexpected breakout success of Kaputt, and Poison Season is nothing if not willing to shrug off a few of Destroyer’s newest fans if that means staying true to what the band has done so well for the better part of two decades. More so than on Kaputt, all of the classic Destroyer motifs are on full display. Which is to say that, 10 years since it was first inscribed into internet lore, playing the Destroyer drinking game while giving Poison Season a spin remains about as deadly a proposition as playing Russian Roulette with a loaded blunderbuss. But even more profoundly, listen closely and you might get the creeping suspicion that we really have been to this movie before. Fans may notice that “Archer on the Beach,” Bejar’s improbable 2010 collaboration with experimental composer Tim Hecker, has returned for a well-deserved encore, albeit now gutted of Hecker’s dark veil of noise and set to a slinky bass and throbbing saxophone. And then there are the returning turns of phrase and bits of lyrical shrapnel, like one particularly memorable stanza on “Solace’s Bride” about fine wine and fine china, a line that first erupted as an extemporaneous outburst halfway through a solo performance of “Chinatown” last year at Massey Hall.

But without question, my favorite little discovery came several months back when, stumbling through the back alleys of YouTube, I came across a 2011 interview with Bejar by the Dutch website FaceCulture, recorded mere hours after writing his first new track in years on the train ride from Cologne to Amsterdam. “It’s probably a cross between a love song and a song where the government crushes us,” Bejar mused over his glass of lager, audibly hesitant. “It probably has something to do with being on a train.” Pressed for the title of the infant song, Bejar smiled a bit sheepishly, turning from the camera and focusing vaguely on something just out of frame. “The working title right now is ‘Forces from Above.’”

Destroyer’s lyrics have been variously lauded and criticized for their tendency toward dense layers of multivalent wordplay and self-reference for the better part of two decades — processing some of Bejar’s lengthier tracks can feel a bit like taking a shot of Ulysses someone forced through a juicer — and there’s a perverse sort of academic satisfaction to uncovering these buried layers of metatext. But one person’s endless self-reference is another person’s lazy writing, and you would be forgiven for not giving Bejar the benefit of the doubt. There are moments when it starts to feel like the writer is going around in circles, tearing through his dog-eared notebook for new ideas, but by the time you reach the third iteration of the album’s title track, you should start to realize that’s at least partly the point. After all, when an exasperated Bejar laments, “I’ve been sifting through these remains for years!” on “Girl in a Sling,” it ultimately serves as a firm reminder that we’re dealing with that rare sort of artist who remains his own best commentator and his own best critic.

Spend enough time in Destroyer’s world, and you’re bound to come away with at least one line that lingers long after it passes. My favorite comes from the title track of Bejar’s 2006 album, Destroyer’s Rubies. “All good things must come to an end,” Bejar intones. “The bad ones just go on forever.” It’s the sort of meaningless platitude that could only be seriously delivered as a quote within a quote, and Bejar recites it quite unsure whether he is the one quoting or being quoted. Like so many of Destroyer’s best lines, the words sound reasonable on first listen, utterly fall apart under scrutiny, and only years later reveal themselves to contain one of the most blindingly wise pieces of nonsense you’ve ever heard. In that sense, I’m happy to say that I have no idea what wisdom Poison Season might yield as it ages and matures in the years to come. But if my past two months living, hurting, and growing with this album have reminded me of anything, it’s that all the best things really do come to an end. Funny thing though. Now that it’s over, I have the strangest feeling that it gets even better from here.

Isn’t that what I just said?

Links: Destroyer - Merge

Most Read