Top albums 2015 advent calendar: Day 19
Destroyer - Poison Season
Dan Bejar, the man behind Destroyer, is a cantankerous fuck. In regard to the success and wider exposure that his last album Kaputt brought him, he has expressed discomfort and inconvenience. He's admitted that from this album, Poison Season, he purposefully took off the two songs that people were consistently telling him were the catchiest. There are still plenty of great pop songs on it, however, about which Bejar has said "I apologize for those songs; those songs are an aberration."
Nevertheless, when in mid-flow, Bejar doesn't sound like he wants to be doing anything else than letting the instrumentation grow in ornamentation and sweetness until the whole song is sweeping along at a majestic pace. "Dream Lover" is the poppiest song Destroyer has ever put out probably, driving forth on a Springsteen-esque carriage of guitars and percussion, to be glazed over with delightfully airy horn blasts to carry the song past the point of bursting. Bejar has said that the band only played the song twice, barely having learnt it before putting the final version to tape, and that excitement of creation and inauspicious energy radiates from the song. Elsewhere on "Times Square" we have Flaming Lips-like grandeur that would easily float as a festival anthem in their hands, but instead Bejar focuses ironically on one of the most inhospitably busy places on Earth and limits its ascendance to a perfectly pleasant height.
But the songs that keep me coming back to Poison Season are the ones that Bejar describes as "a strange mashup of 20th century classical and, like, Destroyer at the Sands." The band assembled for Kaputt is regrouped here, but the songs rely much more heavily on the strings and horns than on any previous Destroyer album. The resulting sound gives Poison Season a certain melodramatic, theatrical romance in which Bejar is recast as a dashing paramour. The overarching themes of the album revolve around city habitation, past lives and unknown characters. "Forces From Above" takes a vampy rhythm and piano while leading us sweeping along in Bejar's wake as he "climbs high the Cathedral steps" and ponders the intervention of the divine upon his life; the regal instrumentation perfectly setting the scene. "Midnight Meet The Rain" rides on a similar bass-driven gallop flanked by sprawling brass through night streets, Bejar drunk both literally and figuratively as he teases "you make a plea for me to come to my senses." On "The River" he imparts "escape from New York, escape from LA, take it from me: leave London," and the lamenting strings depict the cold, grey, city dweller pondering the nature existing outside the urban sprawl.
Several songs on Poison Season also paint portraits of characters that fill these streets. There are the lovelorn women that are rendered so beautifully in both words an instrumentation; you can see the lights in the big shining eyes of "Girl In A Sling" and the soul-wrenching indecision painted in the features of "Solace's Bride." He gets a little James Joyce-y on "Bangkok" as the protagonist walks city streets describing the various emotions he sees blurring past him, before we come into contact with a group of good friends, ribbing one of their number asking "hey what's got into Sunny?"
Poison Season is a rich album in every sense of the word. There is so much depth to the instrumentation and production; the lyrics vary between in-depth and impressionist, but never fail to conjure something captivating. Bejar may not come across as the most welcoming person in conversation, but as a host to his fantasies on Poison Season he's the perfect presenter.
Have I bought this album?: Yes, I went into HMV in Canterbury on release day, not expecting them to have anything contemporary on vinyl but it was sitting there waiting for me!
Ought - Sun Coming Down
Ought released their debut album, More Than Any Other Day, in early 2014 and I was instantly captivated by their post-punk leanings and Tim Darcy's idiosyncratic vocal warblings and intensely inspiring lyricism. That album placed in my top 3 that year and I can't think of a debut album that I've enjoyed more in a long long time. When it was announced that they'd be returning with a second album just 18 months later I was a little worried as I thought that surely music of Ought's depth, gravitas and intelligence must take a long time to coagulate...
Apparently not. Sun Coming Down is an elegantly rampageous return. It's certainly not MTAOD Pt. 2, but the same youthful scrappiness, combined with cynical wisdom and a genuine-but-unintelligible love of life is still present throughout.
Of course the lightning rod that keeps you locked into it all is their singer, Tim Darcy. On this album in particular he reminds me of David Byrne circa-Fear Of Music, filling songs with vocal ticks, allowing paranoia to seep into his breathy delivery, and a playfulness that can turn threatening at the drop of a hat. Also, he has a band that shares in his desperation and imbues their instrumentation with palpable misgiving. They seem to have become even more adept at figuring out how exactly to cage Darcy's meandering melodies; the electrified guitars penning him in, with walls of distortion rising on either side, while precise drum fills take his interjections and turn them into blusters of brilliance.
In the year and a half between albums Ought must have been touring plenty (I managed to see them 4 times between October 2014 and October 2015) and this has turned them into a chokingly tight, physically present band - which has in turn reflected back into their recorded music. The opening of "Men For Miles" shows off their new machine-like imperiousness as the band clicks together in a shower of sparks and gnashing gears. "The Combo" thunders along like a souped-up rickshaw hurtling on uneven paths around precarious ridges, Darcy behind the wheel muttering worryingly before bursting out "JU-BI-LA-TION honey!" The fuzzy, swarming bass and screeching feedback of "Sun's Coming Down" perfectly render the orange-tinted smog of sunset in a busy city, meanwhile Darcy repeatedly laments the orb's decline with a mournfulness that suggests he knows what's lurking after dark - and he wants to get as far away as possible. The album ends with "Never Better," in which the whole band is hurtling down a highway with no intention of slowing; the bass is burning rubber as it eats up the miles, the guitars scrabble at the surface trying to keep hold and Darcy proclaims "I am driving a truck filled with everything; this is the high watermark of civilization, and if you ask me I will say it is easy! it is easy!" - it's a pretty exhilarating statement of maniacal intent and a great way to finish the album.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the album's 8-minute centrepiece "Beautiful Blue Sky." This time the band is patient and measured in their delivery and gradually unfold their neuroses minute by minute in unison; the guitar harmonics stream lazily across the horizon, glinting off tufts of bass, while our protagonist unburdens himself of the never ending images flashing through his mind. Once again the Talking Heads comparison crops up in my mind, as the scattershot lyrics of the chorus ("warplane! condo! oil freighter! new development!") are reminiscent of Byrne's obsessions with domineering man-made structures, but condensed down into a staccato style more akin to the language of the 21st century. More Than Any Other Day started Ought's musical journaling of their modern lives, but in hindsight it looks a lot greener and more college-oriented. Sun Coming Down takes their smarts and astute sonic abilities and applies them to the wider world; the results are just as conflicting, worrying and sardonic as ever - but that reminds me of myself and that's why I love them.
Have I bought this album?: Not much point asking this anymore: I fucking worship every album from here on out so yes, I have them all.