Dan Bejar's impressionistic tour of New York City
by Jericho Cerrona
If Dan Bejar's last album, 2011's free-jazz/rock opus Kaputt, was the sound of one of rock's most esoteric singer-songwriters finding his inner 80s groove, then his latest venture is what happens when the man gives us a chamber-pop view of New York City. Poison Season is an ornate, lush piece of work; heavy on strings, bongos, piano, saxophones, and sweeping compositions. Crucially, if Kaputt saw Bejar channeling the frequent David Bowie comparisons into the realm of straight up synth-driven glam, then this one feels like an Easy Listening record in which he croons like a warbled version of Frank Sinatra. Sure, there's a little bit of Bowie's Hunky Dory phase here--especially the prevalence of string sections--but mostly, this is the sound of Bejar loosening up.
Ever since the mid-90s, where Destroyer's lo-fi debut We'll Build Them a Golden Bridge paved the way for a cult-like fanbase, Bejar has making outsider pop music on his own terms. During the following decade, he'd work in everything from the shoegaze-esque folk of Destroyer's Rubies, to melodic collaborations with The New Pornographers, Frog Eyes, and indie supergroup Swan Lake. This all lead, of course, to a surprise breakout on the fringes of the mainstream with Kaputt. At the time, there was an explosion of 80s-fueled nostalgia (which, incidentally, is even stronger now), but Bejar didn't really seem aware of it. In a way, Kaputt was a canny appropriation of past styles--sax-fueled lounge music, synth-pop, 80s soundtracks--that nonetheless felt like a Destroyer album through and through. This wasn't Bejar jumping onto a trend; but rather, it was him using dreamy soundscapes as yet another mode for extrapolating his sometimes impenetrable poetic musings. Free-association lyrical riddles notwithstanding, what keeps Bejar relatable is his playful sense of play. This is no more true than on Poison Season, in which seemingly pretentious lines like Jesus is beside himself/ Jacob's in a state of decimation are followed up by humorous barbs such as I think I used to be more fun/ Ah shit, here comes the sun. At times, Bejar comes across like the drunken post-Bohemian uncle talking about the good old days, while at others, there's a slurred fragility to his voice that conjures visions of a ghost out of time.
Not one for following trends (as some mistakenly assumed during the Kaputt tour), Bejar again resists easy pigeonholing here. Unlike much of Destroyer's past work, which reveled in a disheveled kind of strangeness, Poison Season is surprisingly accessible. This is not to say complexity and quirkiness has been forsaken; but that some of Bejar's more abrasive tendencies (especially in regards to his singularly odd vocal inflections) have been streamlined a bit into full-on crooner mode. For example, on "Forces From Above", the hard-driving strings, throbbing baseline, and spirited percussion give way to near spoken-word balladry in a way that feels shockingly restrained. Meanwhile, on "The River", the swooning saxophones meander dreamily as Bejar overlooks Manhattan in all of it's deceptively sleazy glory. The laid-back vocal delivery at first feels like a disappointment, but it quickly becomes clear that Poison Season is superficially striking a grand orchestral pose without bothering to deliver on the melodrama. In a way, Bejar's mercurial quality and outsider status makes his bid for classic crooner that much more interesting, and even seemingly slight songs, such as the piano-led ballad "Girl in a Sling", ache with fleeting intimacy. When he laments Girl I know what you're going through/ I'm going there too in that whispy Dan Bejar way, you feel an unspoken kinship with him, even as ultimate empathy remains just out of reach.
Also interesting is the way such serene compositions bleed into more uptempo numbers, like the Springsteen-esque "Dream Lover"; a rousing slice of Americana which acknowledges its pastiche quality without coming across smug. Then there's something like "Hell", which begins slowly with sharp strings and wandering horns before taking a turn into baroque pop territory as Bejar repeatedly intones It's hell down here/ it's hell. "Midnight Meet the Rain" sounds like a Latin-fueled TV detective show theme song, while the two-piece conceptual opener/closer "Times Square, Poisons Season 1" and "Times Square, Poison Season 2" is rivaled only by the centerpiece "Time Square", which goes full soul phase Bowie.
In some senses, Poison Season is a direct response to the unexpected position Bejar found himself in after the success of Kaputt. His opaque songwriting and theatrical delivery remain intact, but there's also a resistance to giving us maybe exactly what we think we want from him, whether that be the art-rock pulse of mid 90s-era Destroyer or the 80s glam stylings of a few years ago. Trafficking in everything from Broadway, Dylan, Van Dyke Parks, Bowie, and Beat-generation ennui into one cohesive package is daunting, if a bit knowing, but Bejar pulls it off effortlessly. More importantly, he manages to meld these disparate influences into something that always sounds and feels exactly like Destroyer, which is in itself, something of a triumph.