For nearly two decades now, Dan Bejar — the mind behind the enigmatic rock enterprise Destroyer — has put out albums that double as propositions to consider what this thing called Destroyer has been and what it might continue to be. There have been a good number so far, including the new Poison Season, the 11th full-length release under the beguiling Destroyer name. The project started as a more or less standard indie-rock affair, with a tweedy bohemian slinging words in a bare bones fashion that couldn't have been less "destroyer"-like. (One imagines a big metal band, or at least some brute rock fantasia.) But Bejar's existential restlessness quickly became part of the arrangement, leading to swerves and zags through which he has managed to make himself sound somehow interesting and new with every shape-shifting move — always with suggestive questions implied. Lines of inquiry surrounding Bejar this time: Crooner? Conniver? Unlikely but also surprisingly convincing champion of the classic American songbook?
For a songwriter with a puckish bard persona and a highly idiosyncratic voice (some might say harsh, biting, distancing, adenoidal), Bejar has come to think surprisingly agreeably about singing in recent years. "There are traditional song structures in Destroyer, like classic-rock or folk-rock style," Bejar said in an interview in light of Poison Season's release. "But my voice generally operated on top of the band, as a commentary or some kind of side figure. That used to be Destroyer's main thing: to puncture what was going on with the lyric and the voice."
Not so any more, as Bejar continued recounting at a cafe in New York, far from home in Vancouver and weary from travel but nursing a mid-day beer on Canada Day. Talk about the new album turned toward digression and self-scrutiny, as talk with Bejar often does. His approach this time, as has been his habit from the start, was reconstituted — not necessarily a wildly radical shift but definitely a fine-tuning of the dial — to suit different desires for the songs. Now in play: a chance spell of fulfillment through self-abnegation and a fateful change of comportment as a singer on stage, where Bejar's neurotic wriggling turned into a yearning for show-biz fortitude.
His present trajectory began with Kaputt, the 2011 album that proved Destroyer's most widely disseminated and resonant so far. "I thought it was going to be the end of me, but it was embraced in a way I never predicted," Bejar said. "All these years I've grappled with what makes a song a pop song. In the end, I decided it's production or an approach to sound more than what you recognize as structure."
The sound of Kaputt was misty and amorphous, wandering in a way that more jagged, manic Destroyer material in the past was not. To suit the mood, Bejar took to rethinking the matter of his lyrics and his delivery — the main elements of what Destroyer has always been about. He cut his words — "check the word-count and it's probably one-third of Trouble in Dreams," he said in reference to an especially loquacious album from 2008. He also imagined new ways to set his voice within the songs, wanting to sift his murmurings within the whole of the mix — "so they didn't jump out, to create a more flattened soundscape."
"It was literally the absence of me: What it would have to do to be pop music was to remove myself physically from the music," Bejar said.
Presence follows on from absence, however, as he would come to learn.
"The first idea I had for this was that it was going to be a disco-salsa record," Bejar said of Poison Season, "but it became apparent quite quickly that I hadn't written 12 disco-salsa songs." After that, "the two ideas I came back to were the live band, because we play well together and I sing well with them, and then the idea of a grand orchestrated record."
For longtime followers, the rise of Destroyer as a band is another addition to a long list of Bejar's unexpected moves. From its origins in '90s indie-rock, Destroyer had always been a somewhat slapdash live entity with a lo-fi streak, but after Kaputt, the album devoted to his own moody evanescence and erasure, Bejar cast himself as the frontman of a startlingly proficient, churning, rhapsodic stage band. They were tight and powerful, trumped up and crowded on small stages (with eight or so players making a collective racket). It was a long way from Bejar's beginnings as the glowering solo troubadour sitting cross-legged with a leer full of disdain.
His perspective reconfigured, Bejar imagined something wholly other than Kaputt's synthetic, atmospheric, studio-intensive blur. "These songs are more traditional in the way they were written," he said of Poison Season, "and I've been listening to a lot of jazz and got into the world of the 20th-century American songbook — the kind of stuff you hear constantly. Unconsciously, I think, I went down that path. I knew I wanted to sing in a room."
He wanted to commune with the spirit of songwriters other than himself, too.
"If you put on John Coltrane's Ballads" — a gentle collection of standards covered by the jazz great — "you put it on to hear songs played by him," Bejar said. "But then eventually these Tin Pan Alley songwriters and their chord changes and their phrasings just kind of seep into you." Another hallmark was Harry Nilsson's slightly arch but more so overwhelmingly moving and sincere A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, which scrambled standards ("It Had To Be You," "Always," "As Time Goes By," etc.) in a post-modern mode while paying touching tribute.
Most integral in the end, however, was Frank Sinatra — the archetypal singer to think about when thinking about what singers do.
"Sinatra is someone I've always listened to, but I started really, really listening to him," Bejar said. "There's always a point in Destroyer when I kind of like something without thinking about it much and then I start to really like it and want to ape it — I want it for myself."
The differences are more legion than the similarities, to be sure, but it's a new kind of pleasure to hear Bejar thinking his way through what he's doing with his voice in the midst of songs as they happen. In "Times Square, Poison Season I," the new album's string-swept opener, he's raspy, breathy, forlorn, hurried, lackadaisical — and all the more inviting for the wide array of effects he evinces.
"There's a certain style of dense, poetic ranting that I've grown tired of for how it forced me to sing," Bejar said. "It's possible I'm more suited to quiet, measured singing than this kind of frothing-at-the-mouth race to stick as many words in as I can."
Much of that sentiment is wiped away by the quick-following blast of "Dream Lover," the booming first single and a rock anthem more in league with the E Street Band than anything even remotely delicate. But most of Poison Season, at least in fits and starts, is more dialed down and intimate, for stretches within certain songs even hushed.
In moments like those it's easy to hear Bejar, the singer, wonder over the kind of "grammar of pause and air" that Ian Penman writes so wonderfully about in a recent essay on Sinatra in the London Review of Books. It's not hard to imagine Bejar aspiring to the incarnation of Sinatra that Penman heroizes as "this white-garbardined, sad-eyed figure: a lovelorn cipher nestled among loveless shadows, crying into his shot glass, sighing under impervious stars." If not quite that, he at least stakes a strong claim to Sinatra as "unreliable narrator, star witness, mole in his own life."
At the café, his beer having dwindled, we commune over shared adulation of Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely, a 1958 collection of torch songs that stands as one of the finest works of art in any idiom. It's dark, dirge-like, despondent, so extreme in its emotional pull as to transform into a strange kind of celebration of the potency and range of human feeling. Sinatra's on the cover, in sad-clown paint, a tear rolling down his face. His voice is everything that anyone could ever want a voice to be.
"I try to write for the spirit of that record." Bejar said. "I know that I can't, but trying to etch out a little piece of that tradition is the coolest thing I can do right now, even if in reality it's so far removed from me."
Direction and aim can matter as much as distance overcome, and his reverence for Sinatra can be sensed in Bejar's evolution into an improbable stage-stealer. "When we toured in 2012, the version of the band you hear on Poison Season, I felt like a singer I could listen to," Bejar said. "Before that, I felt like I represented a kind of struggle on stage: the struggle of someone not exactly sure what he's doing or what his role is. When the guitar came off" — when the focus turned to not just his words but the way they transported — "that's when I embraced show business."
It gave him confidence, or at least a recalibrated sense of purpose.
"I could relax, which is important to singing — I've been told it's the most important thing," Bejar said. "And I wanted to take that into the studio. I was maybe even vain about it. I wanted to lead it like a pony at a horse show — I wanted to show the world."