To Destroyer fans, Dan Bejar should be a literary giant. The fact that he is a songwriter, and a songwriter whose songs are often difficult to decipher, unfortunately prevents this. Yet, his most exquisite way with words, his wry outlook and self-deprecations, his ability to construct lines that would leave most writers green eye’d, makes him both an enigma and a hero to those who dedicate time to his music.
With his knowing wit, and dry tone that is one that sees constant amusement all around him, he displays an ability to create lines that can be simultaneously beautiful and amusing. While his over-enunciated, strained and warbled voice mostly adds to his charm and personality, it can be vexing to those who prefer more natural singers.
However, it is this distinct style of delivery that clearly makes music is the best vehicle for his art. Although one can’t help ponder whether he could equally excel at other forms of written expression.
Poison Season is his tenth album, and the first to be accompanied by a large amount of media interest. His previous album, Kaputt, moved him from an artist with mild, but dedicated, fanbase, to someone who gets invited to perform on late-night television, as well as billed at various hip American music festivals.
Recent interviews have had Bejar claiming he “accidentally hit the zeitgeist” with Kaputt, somehow the album’s 80s progressive pop – or “yacht rock” – sound rode the tail-end of the “chillwave” fad. Although this stated naivety does seem a little disingenuous, as the title track and lead single from Kaputt wryly concludes with the line: “I wrote a song for America…..who knew?” as if he suspected when writing the album it would find him a larger audience.
Both with his promotion of Poison Season, and the album’s lyrical content, Bejar has taken the form of the bitter curmudgeon, unimpressed with this new found attention, and claiming the desire to create an album that would lose him his new cool and connected industry admirers. “I was born bright, now I’m dark as a well, a kite washed up on the shoreline, it’s hell down here, it’s hell”, he suggests of his newfound popularity. Further claiming “Oh it sucks when there’s nothing but gold in those hills”.
Although this ploy is one that remains a strong aspect of the “character” of Destroyer he had created since his first release in 1995. Throughout his career, when one can discern any solid subject matter from his lyrics, there has been an overarching playful theme of his position as an ignored outsider, disgruntled with the musical industry. The whole of the “Streethawk: A Seduction” album uses this narrative, and songs like “The Music Lovers” from Your Blues (“They called us unprofessional, but deep down they knew that we were the music lovers”), have been designed to create a persona that sits outside of a certain reality, particularly in his home of Canada where he can’t even use the bathroom without critical acclaim.
Of course, anyone familiar with his back-catalogue, and especially his contributions to Vancouver power-pop supergroup The New Pornographers, knows that Bejar does love a good pop hook. Or at least he knows how to write them (Bejar provides 3 songs to each New Pornographers album, but almost never performs onstage with the band despite being considered a full member; an added little quirk to his enigma).
The only problem for Bejar, and his desire to remove himself from the popularity he’s acquired, is that Poison Season happens to be fantastic. While it is a shift in musical style, this has been a consistent aspect of his career, as each of his albums have taken different musical approach. Yet as he reacted to the popularity of Kaputt, Poison Season consciously removes anything that could be played in a bar or club in favour of what could best be described as understated and lush baroque or chamber pop, with a heavy influence of ‘70s cinema.
That said, this isn’t something completely unfamiliar within his back-catalogue. Your Blues, from 2004, was essentially a chamber pop album, albeit one made with midi orchestration and embellishments instead of conventional instruments. The success of Kaputt allowed him the budget to hire a greater array of musicians. Although, while the arrangements on Poison Season are more professional and skilled, they aren’t quite as amusing as Your Blues, where the goal was to use the distinct sound of midi, as opposed to trying to actually replicate a “real band”.
While the brass on Kaputt often verged on free jazz freakouts, Poison Season, for the most part, has restrained the brass players to less energetic arrangements. Although the “street rock” stomp of Dream Lover (“I think I used to be more fun….ah shit, here comes the sun.”), stands out as one song where the music is given license to exert more force, and will no doubt become a powerful live favourite.
While the actual music that he composes has always maintained a solid attraction, it is most definitely his lyrics that define Bejar as an artist. In particular his penchant for clever and abundant referencing. This facet of his songs has evolved amongst his fans into a Destroyer Drinking Game, where one takes a shot whenever he makes a reference to another song he has written, uses a female name, borrows a line from someone else’s songs (AC/DC, Bob Dylan, The Beatles and Echo and the Bunnymen make appearances on this album), or, most importantly, makes reference to America.
A song like Rubies, from the album Destroyer’s Rubies – itself a reference to his song Destroyer’s The Temple – will have you halfway through a bottle of vodka by the time he signs off the song “I’m proud to be a part of this number”.
Bejar has a particularly Canadian obsession with the United States, with a mix of constant fascination, repulsion, love, lust, frustration, and the inevitable defining relationship with their overwhelming southern neighbour that forms part Canada’s own national narrative.
While on Kaputt he condensed his obsession perfectly into the opening line of the track Song for America – “I wrote a song for America, they told me it was clever” (a throwback to the aforementioned title track Kaputt, and a signal to take a shot). On Poison Season his preoccupation arrives in the form of Times Square – that significant American symbol of both attraction and revulsion – a song that appears in 3 different forms on the album – “You can follow a rose wherever it grows, or you can fall in love with Time Square.”
While always having been somewhat a darling of the Pitchfork set, it took the success of his 9th album for Bejar to establish he was uncomfortable with the attention of the hip and happening. The problem for him, however, is that Poison Season could potentially add to his admirers. As a collection of excellent, well-composed, and clever songs, Poison Season, will only add to his allure. In particularly by those drawn to him as a wordsmith of wit and capability with very few peers.