As I stood in line waiting to get into the Destroyer show at Fine Line Music Café in downtown Minneapolis, a couple of women in front of me turned around and asked, “So who do you think Dan Bejar sounds more like: Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen?” I hesitated to respond, jumping back and forth in my mind between the luminary songwriters. It’s probably a mix of both yet neither at all. As this episode revealed, it’s hard to define Dan Bejar’s work, a strange combination of a snarky stand-up comedian, mocking everything around him, and a poet, taking the nuances of life and revealing their frailty through insightful and distinctive metaphors.
My confusion continued an hour later as Destroyer and his six-man band came out. As smoke machines began masking the band and the stage, the guys standing in front of me began laughing maniacally, feeling they were in on Bejar’s apparent joke. No self-respecting artist would use the dated stage theatrics of a 20 dollar smoke machine unless it was for satirical purposes, right? Therein lies the uncertainty of Destroyer – is his music meant to be taken seriously or is it all one big joke that only the most skeptical of listeners are in on?
Over the years, Bejar has given various genres his unique twist, whether it be his folk singer classic City of Daughters, his 70s folk-pop, Bowie-esque Streethawk: a Seduction, or his venture into smooth jazz in 2011 with Kaputt. In each effort, he took on traditional tropes of the genre and turned them on their head. Kaputt might have been the most satirical, the smooth saxophones and echoey trumpets butting heads with Bejar’s nasal voice and snarky lyrics. As a whole, the album was bizarre, beautiful, hilarious, and heartbreaking, all at the same time.
I assumed his venture into easy listening territory was a brief pit stop, but 2015’s Poison Season shows Bejar doubling down on what at first seemed like a tongue-in-cheek effort. Poison Season kicks the sultry saxophones and spacious horns up a notch, bringing in lush orchestration and airy synths. If Kaputt was Bejar’s best Kenny G, than Poison Season is his Frank Sinatra standards album.
While Bejar may never have the swoony tenor of Ol’ Blue Eyes, his sultry approach to the distinctively classic sound is just as timeless and captivating. Poison Season is a rumination on Sinatra’s New York, an hour long opus that explores every dirty alley of the city that never sleeps. Track by track, Bejar takes us on a stroll through the city, referencing graffiti, cathedrals, and the shores of the Hudson River. The persistent saxophone throughout the album gives a noir aesthetic, as if Bejar is trying to solve an internal mystery of loss and loneliness.
Musically, the album also takes the listener on a wild, late night exploration of the five boroughs. “Midnight Meet the Rain” is a sexy, latin-funk fusion straight from a 70s blaxploitation flick, while “Hell” is a buttoned-up, string-heavy baroque reflection on self-loathing. “Archer On the Beach” is brooding soul music, and “Bangkok” is an over-the-top, dramatic piano standard. Despite all the various styles implemented, the songs nicely complement one another thanks in large part to the constant sax and trumpet that create a bridge between environs.
The three versions of “Time Square” that bookend the album and also provide an intermission also provide structure. The first is a slowly building string arrangement, leading into the E Street Band inspired “Dream Lover”; the middle version could have easily been produced by a 1970s era David Bowie; and the final mix is a dramatic, emotional standard taken straight from the 1950s. The result is a dizzying album that keeps you guessing at every turn. Bejar may have once resembled that of a modern Dylan or Cohen, but these days he’s more like an amalgam of Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, and Lou Reed, all wrapped into one mystifying man.