Destroyer's previous full-length saw Dan Bejar alluding to David Sylvian, New Order, '80s Miles Davis, Roxy Music's Avalon, and Bryan Ferry's Boys and Girls; constructing lyrics from cue cards sent to him by African-American visual artist Kara Walker; and eulogizing the pallid ghosts of the UK music press ("Sounds, Smash Hits, Melody Maker, NME / All sound like a dream to me"). Said album, Kaputt, proved to be both a Billboard chart commercial breakthrough and universally garlanded critical touchstone, ascending to second place on Pitchfork's Best of 2011 list (actually topping it would have been gauche).
By contrast, Poison Season opens with the Vancouver native swathed in Hunky Dory strings. He's a dashboard Bowie surveying four wracked characters–Jesus, Jacob, Judy, Jack–simultaneously Biblical and musical theatre. This bittersweet, Times Square-set fanfare is reprised twice more on the record–first as swaying, saxophone-stoked "street-rock" and then finally as a curtain-closing reverie.
"The first and last songs are actually one song tracked live with quintet," explains their author. "I even sang with the band. That song always swung between super austere and super mid-'70s Springsteen/Bowie street-rock. In the end, I decided I wanted both. Couldn't really figure out a way to sequence the orchestral version within the record, so I decided to carve it up as a book-ending motif, with the rock version squarely in the middle."
Broadway Danny Bejar dramatically switches scenes with "Dream Lover," all Style Council strut and brassy, radio-ready bombast (echoes of The Boo Radleys' evergreen earworm "Wake Up Boo!"). This being Destroyer, its paramours-on-the-run exuberance is judiciously spiked by his deadpan delivery: "Oh shit, here comes the sun"
"Forces From Above" applies ABC's deathless Lexicon of Love to theological imagery, its romantic-agnostic narrator driven up metaphorical cathedral steps by maximalist chamber funk. Rapture gives way to deftly orchestrated self-loathing on the appositely titled "Hell," a plaintive MIDI tuba solo heralding such quixotic observations as: "Every murderer voted out of office is sold down the river / Every time I try to look into your eyes an angel flies by."
"The River" muses on gentrification–"She despises the direction the city's been going in"–an urge to take flight alternately wreathed in flute/viola pleasantries and scarred by barbed-wire guitar. The horn-blasted, percussion-rattling "Midnight Meet the Rain" is similarly disillusioned ("I visit the symphony and I smell a rat"), its acidic wit amplified by the 12-member Destroyer ensemble's virtuoso R&B interplay. They're his Young Canadians, if you will, a group that absolutely slays onstage.
"I like this record if only cause everything that's not a string section, saxophone, flute, or electro-acoustic drone was recorded all at the same time," says their leader. "Generally in three takes. Not even [his cult 2001 opus] Streethawk came close to this as far as an actual band vibe goes."
Like the other DB, Mr. Bejar has long displayed a chameleonic instinct for change while maintaining a unified aesthetic (rather than just pinballing between reference points). No two records sound the same, but they're always uniquely Destroyer. His latest incarnation often appears to take sonic cues from a distinctly British (usually Scottish, to be precise) strain of sophisti-pop: you might hear traces of Aztec Camera, Prefab Sprout, Orange Juice, or The Blow Monkeys. These songs merge a casual literary brilliance with intense melodic verve, nimble arrangements, and a certain blue-eyed soul sadness.
Playfully rueful, "Sun in the Sky" foregrounds cryptic lyrical dexterity over pop-classicist strum before gradually left-fielding into rhythmically supple, delirious avant-squall. It's as if Talk Talk took over a Lloyd Cole show. Originally released on a collaborative EP with electronic maestros Tim Hecker and Loscil (the latter's drones are retained here), a retooled "Archer on the Beach" suggests Sade swimming in The Blue Nile, smooth-jazz marimba melancholy dilated by ecstatic ambience. Flecked in heady dissonance, elusively alluring, Dan hymns its eponymous "impossible raver on your death bed" while implicitly beckoning the listener: "Careful now, watch your step, in you go."
That's Poison Season in essence: familiar yet mysterious, opaquely accessible. Arch, for sure, but ultimately elevatory.