"They're going to the mystery/Let yourself go." —Van Morrison
The Established History of Rock and Roll rightly reckons the influence of Bob Dylan and Van Morrison to be nearly limitless in scope and scale—upon the slender shoulders of these two diminutive titans rests much of the firmament of serious popular song. Their canonical works from the 1960s (Highway 61 Revisited, Astral Weeks, etc.) are liturgical documents within the critical community, considered so unimpeachable as to serve as permanent bulwarks against the indulgent drift and weird sermonizing that slipped into their work during the 1970s and '80s. That's the popular narrative, anyway.
Dan Bejar, the contrarian genius who records as Destroyer, takes a different view. Poison Season, his ninth full-length, released last week, draws conspicuous inspiration from Dylan and Morrison's oft-derided, wildly underappreciated devotional periods. The relationship between Poison Season and such great late-'70s and early-'80s works as Dylan's Street Legal and Morrison's No Guru, No Method, No Teacher will be instantly recognizable to adherents. Just as easily recognizable (to this adherent, anyway) is the album's confirmation that Destroyer's remarkable catalog will one day rival those of Bejar's idols.
As an artistic development, the album's wide ontological purview makes all the sense in the universe. In terms of Bejar's recently minted commercial viability, however, it may pose some potential dangers.
The noirish nightlife tales and late-period-Roxy-Music cosmopolitanism of Destroyer's 2011 breakthrough Kaputt coincided with a cultural moment that landed Bejar on late-night TV and on the main stage at Coachella. He seemed uncomfortable in both settings. Poison Season is the sound of an artist recoiling from an accidental intersection with the zeitgeist. Handed the keys to the indie kingdom, Bejar has tossed them into the mystic.
The album opens on a quiet note of fear and exultation: "Jesus is beside himself/Jacob is in a state of decimation," Bejar sings in "Times Square, Poison Season I," and only gets more... from there. The mesmerizing Sondheim-isms of "Hell Is an Open Door" and "Girl in a Sling" demonstrate Bejar's capacity for narrative and compositional world building, unconstrained by indie orthodoxies, while the bounding Celtic soul of "Dream Lover" and "Times Square" demonstrates just how fully he has assimilated the object lessons of Morrison's Veedon Fleece. The album's patient accumulation of mood and image builds to an overwhelming cascade of floods and fearsome nature, mantras and motifs, love and memory. It's a masterful song cycle reminiscent of and resembling nothing else contemporary. Destroyer's only competition now is history.
It will be interesting to see how critics respond. A few weeks back, a handful of journalists upbraided Bejar for having the temerity to tell an interviewer that Taylor Swift held little interest for him. The worst of these articles was a remarkably smug, intellectually incoherent piece by Rob Harvilla on the Concourse, which seemed to argue that the only possible reason for a 43-year-old iconoclast like Bejar to not fully embrace a culturally ubiquitous 25-year-old was artistic poseurdom. (This was totalitarian Poptimism—in which it's not only okay to respect Swift, it's compulsory.) Bejar wasn't playing along, and the commentariat struck back.
There is some direct precedent with Bejar's artistic forbears. By the mid-1970s, Bob Dylan's interests had begun to evolve in fascinating ways. The three-album run comprising Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love is frequently oversimplified as his "Jesus years," but I prefer to frame these records as part of a larger chapter between 1977 and 1983 (Street Legal through Infidels)—his "searching period."
During this time, Dylan had seemingly lost interest in contemporary music, culture, politics, and fashion after more than a decade at their vanguard. Critics were beside themselves. Greil Marcus said Dylan was "faking it" and dismissed him for years. The notion of the artist willfully throwing away his critical currency was interpreted as a grievous insult. If the consensus view holds that this was Dylan at his most perplexing and unreachable, it clearly speaks to some people. Bejar among them. And his embrace of Dylan's example—divesting himself of conventional marketplace reasoning—has led him to a create masterpiece.
Dylan once paid Leonard Cohen the compliment of saying that as Cohen's skill grew as a songwriter, his songs became more like prayers. The same could be said of Bejar. Bejar has described himself as unreligious per se, but attracted to spirituality in art and "striving for revelation." Currently, Dylan publically embraces not a single religious ideology but bows to the collective forces of art, nature, and the mystic. It is on that sprawling continuum of spiritual song—comprising everything from medieval Japanese folk to Jerry Lee Lewis—that Poison Season should be mapped. "I travel lightly toward the light," he sings on "Midnight Meet the Rain." The journey may steer him away from the mainstream, but only to carry him closer to his destiny.