Small Clever Rooms
Poison Season : Kaputt :: Trouble in Dreams : Destroyer's Rubies
I’ve mentioned the analogy in this post’s title to a couple hard-core Destroyer fans — my brother, and my best friend I’ve never met in person Jeff Hume — and both had an initial reaction that suggested nonplussedness or at least extreme puzzlement. So here’s what I mean.
I don’t just mean that Poison Season is the LP following Kaputt, but let’s start with that fact. I mean that Poison Season is both a recoiling from and an expansion on Kaputt in a similar way that Trouble in Dreams was to Destroyer’s Rubies. I use the term “recoiling” because of an interview Dan Bejar did with Pitchfork where he expressed discomfort, or something, at having found himself playing large festivals in the wake of Kaputt:
I remember being at Coachella and thinking, “What the fuck am I doing here?” That’s just one obvious one. But I didn’t have to play Coachella. No one forced me. That was a choice and that’s me just dabbling in this certain careerist version of myself. It fucking exists! I don’t regret it, though, and I’m really proud of Kaputt. But it became clear to me very quickly that there are a few places where I have no business being—and that I wasn’t going to be returning to those places again, whether out of my own volition or because I would not be invited back.
In the same interview, you can (unsurprisingly) sense Bejar’s intent to withdraw from the crowd-pleasing pop of Kaputt that ended up with him on the stage at Coachella in the first place.
Though I don’t have nor intend to try to look up interview evidence supporting it, I submit that this isn’t a new pattern. Prior to Kaputt, the last time Bejar made a relatively straightforward and accessible rock record and got approving press for it, it was Destroyer’s Rubies. He followed that up with Trouble in Dreams which was possibly his most widely panned (well, let’s say least critically lauded; Destroyer is a band that critics tend to love) album in a decade. Perhaps its best competition for that dubious prize would be 2002’s This Night, which — insofar as any Destroyer album resembles another — is also probably the one most like Trouble in Dreams: it’s guitar-heavy, a little glammy, a little shambolic, a little longer and more indulgent than it maybe needs to be. Of course, This Night came a year after Streethawk: A Seduction, certainly the most consistent and highly regarded Destroyer album pre-Rubies! Keeping in mind that this post’s title’s analogy is a loose one, it would work equally well expanded to include This Night : Streethawk too.
Musically, Bejar alludes to Poison Season’s having two main vibes, which are pretty apparent when you give it a spin. The straight-up 70s-ish pop rock of “Dream Lover” and “Times Square” is superficially reminiscent of several other Destroyer albums, and I’m pretty sure it actually re-uses a handful of riffs from Trouble in Dreams. There’s also the chamber pop using classical instruments like you hear on the bookend/title tracks and in the first half of “Hell”. If the Destroyer album that Trouble in Dreams most resembles is This Night, what precedent does Poison Season’s chamber pop have? Die-hard fans will already know where I’m going with this: Your Blues, the MIDI-orchestrated (and enjoyable but also quite outré and critic- and mainstream-befuddling) follow-up to This Night.
Critical consensus has largely come to the conclusion that Rubies and Kaputt are Destroyer’s masterpieces to date, and like Trouble in Dreams before it, Poison Season sounds like a transitional work in the wake of one of those masterpieces: lacking its cohesion and instead sort of straddling two worlds, a little more uneven, a little harder to pin down, maybe a little harder to love, or maybe a little harder to admire and a little easier to love because of it. I don’t love Poison Season but I didn’t want another Kaputt, so I’m happy that it’s surprising and kind of murky and difficult.
I don’t mean to say that Bejar is starting to just tread old ground and repeat himself. These newer albums are also evolutions on the old ones they superficially resemble, and no one who’s listened to them more than a couple times would mistake Trouble in Dreams for This Night or Poison Season for Your Blues. Nor do I mean to say that Dan Bejar’s artistic direction is informed only by his desire to avoid the glare of the spotlight: he’s clearly doing what interests him. Hell, he even said in an interview that Poison Season is “what’s closest to [his] heart right now,” which is kind of delightful and reassuring coming from a man who in recent years has been given to pronouncements like “The English language seemed spent, despicable, not easily singable. It felt over for English; good for business transactions, but that’s about it,” and “I think I also lost complete interest and faith in indie rock music being a serious forum for writing” and (in his song “Grief Point”) “I have lost interest in music. It is horrible.” From the standpoint of that last quote, Poison Season is a relief. It’ll never be my favorite Destroyer album, but it’s not something made by someone who’s lost interest in music, and we should all be thankful for that.