Destroyer – Poison Season

Standard

Destroyer – Poison Season

It’s been a long, long time since City Of Daughters, the first of Dan Bejar’s Destroyer albums to achieve wider distribution and recognition.  Back then, in those heady days of 1998, he was the poet laureate of drinking in the park, a dissolute and languid lover scribbling guitar sketches of love for various women and hatred for the record industry.  Since then he’s found a permanent place as the resident poet of the New Pornographers and slowly grown his image, developmentally and chronologically.  He switched the mickey-in-a-paper-bag for fine bourbon, the ripped jeans for a crisp white linen suit, and the song-sketches for fully-realized instrumental smorgasbords.  The density of his poetry developed alongside; by the time Destroyer’s Rubies came along in 2006, he was the poet laureate of the modern singer-songwriter.

Then came 2011 and Kaputt.  At first the concept seemed absurd:  it was an album deeply indebted to disco rhythms and the sounds of the early 1980s.  It was, as both detractors and champions pointed out, the purest expression of yacht-rock that you could find.  Despite its dubious influences, it worked amazingly well, garnering stellar reviews and numerous spots on year-end lists.  The wider fame generated by the success of Kaputt also made Bejar more uncomfortable; having spent fifteen years taking potshots at the record industry,being caught up in it proved to be just as depressing as he’d imagined.  This discomfort with the trappings of newfound fame explains both the four-year wait for Poison Season  and the change in sound.

Poison Season is not a yacht-rock album.  It is not a post-disco album.  It is not a pop album, although Kaputt was never a strictly pop outing either.  Instead, Poison Season is both a return and a progression.  It’s a return to the sprawling singer-songwriter, the man in the open-chested white suit tickling the piano and singing literary songs of chasing lovers and lives.  At the same time it’s much more than that.  The sheer amount of instruments on any one given track can be overwhelming at times.  It’s not just Bejar and a piano – it’s the piano, the strings, horns, dollops of full-throated saxophone, and a bit of guitar layered in for texture.  On the two rockier tracks – “Dream Lover” and “Times Square” – it sounds uncommonly like the E Street Band before they left Asbury Park for the wider sounds of America.  There’s a whiff of “Rosalita” and “Incident On 57th Street” here and there, although the Boss never went as fully chaotic as Bejar allows his band to go here.  There are moments – like on the end of “Hell Is An Open Door” – where the songs descend into a maelstrom of instruments, furiously playing off of one another like a hurricane of sound.  In the middle of it all, Bejar’s voice brings everything together, the anchor for the yacht in the middle of the fury.

If Kaputt was a (relatively) sunny album, a daytime album, Poison Season is the nighttime album.  The yacht has docked and Bejar and Co. are playing on the beach to a crowd of well-heeled degenerates looking to party genteely until dawn.  When dawn comes, it’s a surprise; “Oh shit, here comes the sun,” he gasps in surprise on the sax-drenched “Dream Lover”, and it’s a change from his previous embrace of the all-night escapade on “Here Comes The Nighttime”, from This Night.  This is not an isolated self-reference, either; as usual, Bejar peppers his lyrics with backlinks to previous songs from ThiefThis Night, and Your Blues.  If you think you’ve heard a line before, you probably have, and it comes across as usual as a wink-and-nod to the people that have stuck with him across the wide gulf of years that separate drinking in the park from drinking at an open bar on a private beach.

If there’s a line that can sum up the feelings brought about by Poison Season, it’s “Bitter tears, bitter pills / it sucks when there’s nothing but gold in those hills”, from “Girl In A Sling”.  That is to say, it may suck for Bejar to be cursed with a sense of style and flair that has proven popular, but for me listening it’s nothing less than triumphant.  Destroyer will likely continue to be a popular unit, regardless of Bejar’s feelings on the matter, and for the rest of us that’s quite alright.

 

Beck – “Morning Phase”

Standard

Sometimes I feel like the only person who thought that Sea Change didn’t live up to the massive hype that 2002 dumped on it.  At first I thought it was because I was in my second year of university and newly, deeply in love; a melancholy album of musings on broken love and divorce was not on the top of my priority change at the time.  As time goes on I still haven’t gone through that range of feelings, which might explain why I still don’t like the album as much as, say, any other Beck album.  I tend to prefer Mr. Beck Hansen when he’s balancing the broody musing with the funk, which is why I think the trio of Guero, The Information, and Modern Guilt are much, much better than certain other Hipster Bible’s tend to.  I should probably dislike Morning Phase then, since it’s been hyped as the second coming of Sea Change – but I don’t.  I don’t adore it, but I do think that it’s a much stronger album than its predecessor precisely because it refuses to wallow in the mire of depression.

Beck has always been a folk singer at heart, as the Futurama episode intimates, although he’s always covered it up a bit with his penchant for grooves.  Morning Phase strips those grooves away entirely and leaves us with expansive, static arrangements that seem drenched in, well, “Waking Light”.  There is a tidal wave of string arrangements throughout the album, along with gently plucked guitars and Beck’s rather admirable voice.  Here and there the drums pick up, and when they do (like on “Say Goodbye”) the effect is as galvanizing as a wall of gain-fuelled guitars or a breakbeat might once have been.  The best moments though, oddly enough, are the moments where everything seems to stretch out into the infinite and hang like it will never end – the entirety of “Wave”, basically, or much of the sublime closing track “Waking Light”.  The last half of the album, though, tends to muddle together into one loose conglomerate and it’s not until “Country Down” kicks it up a slight notch that you realize that you didn’t just listen to one ten-minute track.

If Sea Change was a sticky glob of bummed-out feelings wadded together into one album, then Morning Phase is basically the same thing but with a more peaceful, zen-like cast to the tone.  If Sea Change was the sound of a man awake and staring at his clock in the darkest parts of the morning, then Morning Phase is the sound of a man waking up into bright sunlight, padding out into the kitchen, making a pot of coffee, and feeling pretty okay.  It’s probably an apt metaphor for where Beck’s head is at these days, on a personal and professional level, and while it does not make for an exhilirating set of songs, per se, it does make for a strong artistic statement.  As Mellow Gold hits its 20th anniversary (!) it speaks to Beck’s artistic bona fides that he can continue to make these sorts of solid, impactful statements after so many years.

GRADE:  B+

Standouts:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H41bw8N-fQU]

-“Heart Is A Drum”

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PugIf_WlosA]

-“Say Goodbye”

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iea-ozFzGzw]

-“Wave”

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N63tT1z7RAw]

-“Waking Light”

—————————-

Don’t forget to buy a copy of my book, available in digital or physical form through Amazon!