Destroyer are one of those acts people call “literary”, a term that seems like a way to say they’re slightly pretentious whilst also admitting that you like them. It’s a coded way of saying they have more lyrical ambition than most, even if that often simply translates into vague, impressionistic, would-be metaphors rather than any of the storytelling craft you’d expect from literature. With Destroyer I had been of the opinion that, though I found them enjoyable enough, frontman Daniel Bejar fell victim to this. Poison Season has changed that view. I see the craft at work, the intelligence behind the music, the story unfolding. What’s most impressive about Destroyer’s latest, however, is how much of that is the music behind Bejar.
A swirling, morphing melting pot of elements, so much of Poison Season’s powerful sense of place and character is communicated in the gaps around Bejar’s more opaque lyricism. The interplay between the propulsive, powerful drumming and the fluid, frequently tribal percussion captures the messy majesty of Times Square’s monoliths and masses better than Bejar ever could; the soaring strings and airy keys create a positively toxic air of confusion, longing, despair and exhilaration, punctuated by the joyous, jazzy horns and watery surf guitar riffs. Amidst the chaos and confusion of Poison Season’s sounds is a sense of freewheeling, desperate majesty, somewhere between a lounge act and Bruce Springsteen.
Dovetailing with Bejar’s weedy, sung-spoken vocals and lyrics concerning his “comedy of souls” and a protagonist who’s “over before I begin”, the mood of the album is one of the joyously downbeat. It’s an album of resignation and escapism, self-destruction and resurrection, orbiting around Times Square – the opener, closer and centrepiece of the album. Ostensibly the same song coming back around at key points of the album, each form is nonetheless entirely distinct and equally laden with significance. Returning at the album’s mid-point, Times Square shifts from Times Square, Poison Season 1, upping the energy to the nth degree and injecting the laboured melancholy with an exultation that could only be brought about by falling in love.
These fluctuating emotions and modes make for an album that defies both its length and its pretensions. Running close to an hour, Poison Season would seem to stretch thin both its simple story and Bejar’s penchant for the overwrought; instead it is carried on its irrepressible sense of mood and place, its musical variety, and trying to work out how Bejar’s lyrics tie into the emotions enacted by these shifting sounds. It’s an album that feels cohesive without being same-y, each chapter playing a part in the wider piece, each moment considered, not a second wasted. What should feel long is simply the album capturing that sense of savouring time on The River, proclaiming New York as hell on earth on Hell, or drinking in the exotic wonder of Bangkok.
By the time the album returns to New York for its coda, Bejar has brought his lovers out of its hellish pits of self-deprecating despair, and taken them on a tour of the world as the album relaxes into a calm drift after the bipolar opening half. With the return comes the sense of dissonant, othering confusion and sadness; the question being this time whether Bejar has returned us here as a nostalgic reflection of where we’ve began and where we’ve ended, or whether the horn that sounds Poison Season’s end is an elliptical harbinger of a less than happy conclusion.
That beguiling sense of “what was it all about” is the other side of the “literary” tag – that ability to engage in a way that leaves you considering, reflecting and interrogating even after the album fades out. Poison Season is no less dense and no less pretentious than any of Destroyer’s other work; and, indeed, it’s hard to say how it’s even really better. But it is. It thrills and compels in a way that the pleasant but not hugely diverting Kaputt never did, it stages a story better than they ever have, and it weaves the disparate forms of Bejar’s cryptic lyricism and the rest of the band into a cohesive whole. Daniel Bejar seems like the kind of musician who’ll pack it in at some point to try his hand as an author proper. It’s unfortunate then that with Poison Season he’s already written his best work, and his band did most of it.