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‘Poison Season’ review

| Thursday, September 3, 2015

Banner_PoisonSeason_WebJanice Chung | The Observer

Dust is tucked into the grooves of “Poison Season.” Singer/songwriter Dan Bejar, stage name Destroyer, has a habit of spinning his lyrics with the aged beauty of faded paintings and yellow-paged narratives. The scenes and characters in Bejar’s work are alternatively personal and historical, his perspective alternatively romantic and cynical. The music he makes as Destroyer always seems to be reaching back towards faded cities, only to grasp them as they vanish. It’s this moment of loss that Bejar captures so well in his understated, orchestral compositions — one that seems to simultaneously embody and long for what is gone.

“Sounds, Smash Hits, Melody Maker, NME … all sound like a dream to me,” Bejar sang on his last full-length record, “Kaputt,” listing off the (mostly) defunct music magazines he read as a kid. It’s a devastating line draped over a gorgeous yet sterile smooth jazz groove. While Bejar’s lyrics have always balanced nostalgia and realism, the production on Kaputt was blindingly clean and accessible.

The clash between the one-dimensionality of Kaputt’s sound and its nuanced lyrics is enthralling. Yet “Poison Season” boasts a sonic palette that meshes, rather than coexists, with the subject matter of its lyrics — one that sounds, well, dusty. A subtle wave of distortion blurs and ages the trumpets, drums, saxophones and other instruments that populate the record. It’s a welcome touch of depth: where Kaputt was cloudless, “Poison Season” sits in a light fog. The name of the album itself, ominous and airy, seems to linger in the dissonance and fuzz that roll in and out of each arrangement on the record.

As for the arrangements, each is spectacular. Immaculately written and performed strings and winds cloak Bejar’s compositions in breathtaking beauty. Yet for all the immediate beauty in the arrangements, the actual songs on “Poison Season” tend to veer unpredictably. Street-rock stomps erupt from midnight meditations. Runs of dissonant notes slink out of seemingly straightforward chord progressions before blooming into new progressions altogether. Bejar’s piano and vocal work clearly sit at the heart of the ballads of “Poison Season,” guiding the tempo through skips and pirouettes without missing a step. It’s the sort of music that’s so well-constructed that it comes off as both capricious and inevitable.

Thankfully, Destroyer’s attention to detail does not stop at the notes on the page. Bejar’s lyrical content is standard for the singer songwriter. “Poison Season” spends its fifty-minute runtime illuminating societies old and new, collapsed or collapsing. Yet his penchant for concise and affecting phrasing is stronger than ever. “Dinosaur on the ice / buffalo on the plain,” Bejar hums on “Sun in the Sky,” “I left my keys on the kite / left my violin on the trolley.” It’s an astonishingly effective, and wholly American, reminder that all of history — no matter how distant it seems — is simply a tally of each day and place as they pass into legend.

The shining star of the record, however, is “Times Square,” which acts as both the bookends of the record and its centerpiece. Performed in three different ways, it deftly introduces (and reintroduces) a set of classic characters while complicating our ideas about them. “Jesus is beside himself / Jacob’s in a state of decimation / The writing on the wall wasn’t writing at all / Just forces of nature in love with a weather station,” sings Bejar in the opening lines. Bejar has a striking ability to construct figures that are familiar, troubled and human, stuck both in the past and in the present; in short, he brings to life characters that are real, just like the refreshingly tangible instrumentation that surrounds them. “Poison Season” is an incredibly human record, marked by the touch of a masterful musician who paints a beautiful yet convincingly deteriorating portrait of America as we know and knew it. Even as “Poison Season,” too, gathers dust, it will be worth turning to if only to touch something that feels true.

 

4.5/5 Shamrocks

Merge Records

Similar Artists: Dirty Projectors, Owen Pallett, Beirut

 

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