Monday, September 28, 2015

album review: 'poison season' by destroyer

Let's talk a little about lyrics. I've often been told that in comparison with most music critics, I pay much more attention to the writing than the sound of the album itself, and in a few conversations with other critics, I've come to realize that I might be the exception than the rule with that approach. Where the conversation gets interesting is when it comes to the mainstream public, because where I'm fairly certain I care about the writing more than some critics, I know for certain I care more than most audiences, and even then it breaks down by genre how much one might care - lyrics matter more in folk and country and arguably most of hip-hop than they do in, say, electronica. Now I could argue that I care more about lyrics because I'm a writer myself and I love to decode poetry good and bad alike, but I reckon even in the cases where they're easy to ignore good writing plays a purpose. It's the primary method for the songwriter to convey their art's story or meaning to the audience, with the sonic palette around them being what sets the mood and atmosphere. For me, writing and instrumentation need to have a certain amount of balance when I consider an entire piece, with strengths and weaknesses in both being enough to save or sink an album.

That's why, believe it or not, when I hear about records that are highly touted for their lyrics above all else and aren't hip-hop albums, I'm intrigued but cautious. Sure, I'm predicated to like this sort of thing more, but that means as a critic I have to make sure I'm not giving undue praise when it's not earned. Thankfully, today we're talking about Destroyer, the project of Canadian singer-songwriter Dan Bejar and an artist whose lyrical eccentricities often are matched by eclectic and interesting instrumentation that at its worst can feel sloppy or indulgent but at best can be genuinely breathtaking in beauty and melodic composition. Affiliated with critically acclaimed indie rock group The New Pornographers, who really have a disturbingly high record of producing great side projects from their members, the most striking thing about Destroyer is the choice to switch up musical sounds with nearly every album. From the tight cohesion that defined the excellent Streethawk and Thief to the meandering and yet compelling mess of This Night to the synth-touched and goddamn spectacular Your Blues to the drunken cacophony of Trouble In Dreams. Now since his 2011 album Kaputt - which I thought had some great writing and some gorgeous melodies but could meander a little in late-80s easy listening territory, Dan Bejar has been taken longer and longer between releases, and now he's finally got a new album: Poison Season. And with it came the explosion of critical acclaim: was the album actually worthy of it?

Honestly, I don't know. Have to be straight with all of you, this review has been a few weeks in the making beyond just my usual examination of the full discography, mostly because Destroyer are tricky to untangle and Poison Season more than most. It's definitely a record that will demand a half dozen listens before one really gets it, and for me it was probably double that. And even after that, this album's mood is peculiar, a oddly wistful melancholia that seems at first to awkwardly clash with the instrumentation but still has a way of drawing you in. And yet the deeper I dove into untangling the reference-filled yet poetically stark record, I found we have one of the best goddamn records of the year, period. And let me stress I only really fell for this album when I decoded the lyrics in their entirety and mostly understood the themes - I think there'll be a lot of people put off by this record because they don't understand this record. I'm going to try to alleviate that, so strap in, this might get kind of crazy.

So let's start with the easiest part: Dan Bejar's voice. Have to be honest here, there have been points in the past where his half-murmured, half-whispered croon doesn't always connect with me, but it's got the odd quality of being emotive and expressive in a quiet subtle way that almost display more magnetism. I can't imagine anyone but Dan Bejar singing this album because even despite the glitz and occasionally raucous instrumentation, he's still precisely positioned in the mix to sound clear and remain one of the main focal points - it could have been sold more broadly, and I'm thrilled it never really happens.

Part of that, of course, is the production is goddamn fantastic, giving the instrumentation a ton of glossy swell that never feels inorganic or forced - it's cinematic in capturing the mood of old Hollywood films without ever feeling like a throwback or faking lo-fi, baroque without putting on airs, calling back to the smooth jazz of classic musicals while blending in elements of Latin music and funk and some faded, reverb-touched guitars straight out of modern indie rock. And it never feels smooth or slick or anything close to 'cool', but that's because it's got the world-weary maturity to never care about that veneer. It's a natural reminiscence to 50's Sinatra tempered with the raw honesty of the best 70s singer-songwriters, subversive at points but still with an earnest power that's impossible to fake and puts the listener in a bit of an awkward place. Now part of this is that I don't really love the opening two tracks - I didn't quite like the keyboard tone of the opener and 'Dream Love' can sometimes feel a little too frenetic for its own good with the Springsteen-esque interweaving horns and the heavier drums as the bass struggles to maintain underlying melody and a more potent groove. But moving from there, this album is both strikingly varied and stunningly melodic. Perhaps the least obvious and yet most quintessential element to why so many of these songs work is the bass grooves, many of which often carry their own counterpoint melody - the subtle foundation carrying 'Forces From Above' even as the strings and horns wail against minuscule guitar flutters; the thicker bass lick on 'Archer On The Beach' that without that horn flourish would remind me of a Push The Sky Away-era Nick Cave track, especially with the guitars smouldering on the outro; the Latin funk vibe of 'Midnight Meet The Rain', although it'd be easy to overlook it when the guitar and horns seethe against that phenomenal piano line and skittering percussion; or the more cinematic vibe on 'Bangkok', although the bass only really gets infectious on the back half of the song even though the horns are goddamn beautiful all the way through it. And that's a running theme: the interweaving melodic arrangements for the horns and strings are impressive across the board, mostly because Bejar knows to play for the moments of jazz dissonance to shift the mood, like on the increasingly explosive crescendo of 'Hell' or the warring cacophony on 'The River'. And then you have the moments where the melody lines are so potent even stripped back they can deliver incredibly potent emotional moments, like the distant pianos and that strings outro on 'Girl In A Sling' or the more upbeat 'Times Square' that reminded me starkly of 'Scenes From An Italian Restaurant' by Billy Joel or especially the film-score swell of 'Bangkok' with the flutes midway through the bridge against that strings arrangement. The only criticism I could make on some of the instrumentation on this record is that it can feel a tad overlong on the outros, but really, when it sounds this potent and melodic, that's hardly a complaint!

But now we need to get into the meat of this, the heart of why so many music critics love to talk about Destroyer: lyrics and themes. Two things to keep in mind before we start: Destroyer frequently draws back to iconography throughout Bejar's entire career - hence the reason I revisited the discography - and this album in particular should be read as an album statement, because while songs do work on their own, the album informs the much larger context, to say nothing of the underlying metaphors across multiple songs. There are lyrical callbacks that gain so much more power when you have that context, and it's one of the many reasons this record seems like a step away from the mainstream breakout that was Kaputt. Of course, the other reason is the mood: with the cleaner, more jazzy production you might expect something broader or more theatrical, but Bejar has gone on record as saying this is a darker album than others in his catalogue. And he's not kidding: from the opening song he sets the stage with one of the most potent lyrics I've heard this year: 'The writing on the wall wasn't writing at all', the implication that whatever foresight might have come has proven for naught. Pitchfork wasn't wrong when they said that Bejar seemed to be second-guessing himself here - but it's not so much a characteristic of the writing as it is the entire thematic throughline of the album. This is where it should be noted that Bejar often includes references to muses - the female personification of music, art, and inspiration - throughout his work, and it's no exception here - except many of the female figures on this album are on deathbeds or are in slings with the light fading in and out of their eyes, or are surrounded on all sides by cloying crowds to which they just wish to escape. And it's not hard to see so many of these songs touching on the unexpected success of Kaputt and how readily unprepared Bejar was prepared to explore what might come next, mostly because he himself has grown older and isn't as fun as he used to be - and with the sun rising, it'll be clear to everyone sooner rather than later. This is where we encounter the second major piece of iconography through this album: the night, the vast open dark sky, the void of infinite possibilities, where stars are born and die. And so much of this album features Bejar staring into that void, searching for love or God or his muse or the combination of all three and finding no expected answer. 

And so there is a desire to retreat inwards, retract into the anonymity of the city that recalls more than anything else Steven Wilson's Hand.Cannot. Erase. from earlier this year, and yet there are moments of humanizing empathy on 'Girl In A Sling' where they stare out at the empty wealth of said cities and battle with that lack of answers. And yet even that turns frosty on one of the most poetic tracks on this record: 'Archer On The Beach', featuring the titular character shooting for love and never hitting, the mutation of the Ash King's depression and the frostiness of the Ice Queen into a recognition of the lonely depression that underscores them both is the same, and with the storm brewing all the closer. And this is a lonely record: putting aside the directionless couple of Judy And Jack on 'Times Square' - easy stand-ins for the everyman and woman - Bejar's frustration curdles to target nearly everyone, even as it really is self-flagellation. The key word is 'scum', and Bejar makes it very clear he's talking about himself whenever he uses it, which adds a whole layer of drama to the argument on 'Midnight Meet The Rain', as he faces the girl standing on deep water - which is a Biblical reference as said defiant lover or muse is held aloft by her own faith... and yet even that is undercut on 'Solace's Bride', where the second-guessing becomes all the more clear and heartbreaking. But the album begins to snap into focus on 'Bangkok', as Bejar focuses on Sunny, a character he wrote a theme for from children's literature and yet who Bejar describes as depraved finally trying to display a moment to show it all and yet the masses are baffled. This is because like so much of the best music written about the creative process, Bejar doesn't exclude the audience from the story - and to his credit, he frames them as just as lost and confused and lacking direction as he is, and when it looks as though he might have the answers, they throng around him to the point where it becomes cloying and impossible to focus - and yet when faced with real truth, they can't recognize it.

Follow all of that? Good, because now on the second-to-last song 'Sun In The Sky', Bejar brings together one of the most stunningly powerful thesis statements I've ever heard on an album, a song loaded with callbacks to other metaphors throughout the record that reasserts that uncertainty that comes with creativity. 'You don't start the fire - you just turn it on'. The second verse shows him trying to push his night drama into music and yet he left his keys on the kite - a kite that if you go back earlier on the record to 'Hell' washed up on the shoreline, never taking off into the night on the flight of inspiration. The third verse sees him thinking of family or love for inspiration... and yet he floats down said river clutching a plastic bag, all the more hollow. Whenever he tries to wring inspiration from his life and drama, it feels so hollow in the light of day, and that's when we get the penultimate line of this album: 'I'm so much deeper than my drama'. And when you pair it with the the final song and its final lines, it rings as a statement that shows Bejar embracing his own creative impulse, rejecting a world that would run to him for insight based on musings on his direction which even he can't hope to truly know on his own. But the repeated line that ends out the album, the returning reference to Jack and Judy, the world looking for that fickle direction, gives a glimmer of hope if not direction: 'you can fall in love'.

Of course, the great irony of Poison Season is that for much second guessing and confusion about the creative process, Destroyer did manage to make a goddamn excellent record along the way. And if you can't tell by now, I absolutely adore this album. Hands down one of the best of the year that proves Dan Bejar remains a titan among singer-songwriters though he'd never assume the title, this gets a 9/10 from me and the highest of my recommendations. Folks, I cannot promise Poison Season is an easy listen, and I'm still not quite sure if it rises to the incredible heights he reached with his early 2000s work - I still think Your Blues might be the best thing he's ever done - but if you're looking for a challenging, intellectually and emotionally fulfilling listen, Destroyer delivers. Oh dear god, they deliver.

No comments:

Post a Comment