Review: Destroyer’s Dan Bejar checks in at the Regent

Destroyer front man Dan Bejar, second from left, on stage at the Regent Theater on Sunday night.

Destroyer front man Dan Bejar, second from left, on stage at the Regent Theater on Sunday night.

(Adam Della Maggiora / For The Times)

Destroyer’s Dan Bejar claimed to be listening to lots of Frank Sinatra and Van Morrison during the writing of “Poison Season,” the band’s tenth album, turning him into what he described at one point as a “confused jazz balladeer.”

Working with string arranger Stefan Udell, Bejar made “Poison Season” a robust, delightful, only mildly confused conflation of classic rock and variations on the traditional American songbook. The album shifts moods and tempos so often that it’s a bit frustrating to jog to, though it’s sort of fun to stop and replay lines like “the Ash King’s made of ashes, the Ice Queen’s made of snow,” because, yes, the line is that odd and no, there aren’t really that many words being used.

You didn’t have to attend Destroyer’s Sunday show at the Regent Theater to know that Bejar and his band were going to have a hard time reproducing “Poison Season” live. Bejar’s been working for almost 20 years in a mode of rock song that pivots on the lyric, more melodic than the “speak-singing” tradition of Sprechgesang but less emotionally immediate than an unusually wordy songwriter like the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle.

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The reference points thrown about by almost everyone who’s encountered the singing are accurate: early ‘70s David Bowie, post-Walker Brothers Scott Walker, Prefab Sprout’s Paddy McAloon. Bejar’s lineage also includes two British masters, Jarvis Cocker and Luke Haines of the Auteurs — all lyricists who feel no need to stick to the sensible or even to always rhyme.


“Literate” is a word that pops up, though that ignores the main tension a writer like Bejar faces: how to match intense wordplay with a musical backing. Bejar is very much working in songs, no matter how dense the language gets. And you could ostensibly match a Bejar lyric to absolutely any style, like a Colorform. “Poison Season” is Cinemascope overload, but 2011’s “Kaputt” was some twisted pastel vision, yacht rock driven up onto a pebbly beach, not unhappily.

Bejar favors a vernacular delivery, which puts him in line, more or less, with Sinatra. (You rarely hear anything as theatrical as Walker’s full-bodied hollering in a Destroyer song.) Bejar likes to balance words on the edge of sense and suggestion, a big tendency in early Bowie. “Midnight Meet the Rain” is one of the songs that worked best in Sunday night’s set, which was made almost entirely from “Poison Season” songs. In an untucked gray button shirt and dark pants, Bejar sang, or spoke, sometimes facing the band, sometimes the crowd, never seeming particularly worked up. “You make a plea for me to come to my senses, just like the time before, the time before that. I visit the symphony, I smell a rat, well, midnight meet the rain, midnight meet the rain.”

The oddity of the show came from a gap between the intensity of the band and Bejar’s apparent disconnect from the band and audience. Almost every time he was done singing a verse, Bejar would bend down and sip from an aluminum can or a plastic glass. (Coors and white wine? Arizona Iced Tea and seltzer? Who knows.) Some of this is the Bejar persona, the effect of a professor who’s come by to visit his class and see how the work is going. The effect is not so much that the singer is phoning it in, but that he’s resigned himself to the impossibility of reproducing the careful, surreal dynamic calibrations of the recordings. “Just checking in, fellows, carry on.”

Though his band has two brass players, a keyboard player and two guitarist, there is no string section in this touring ensemble and, more to the point, you can’t mix an enormous live band down to a small murmur and then have your softly sung vocal mixed way above them. The recording studio enables accuracy, and the live venue offers the chances for cathartic bursts of energy. But Bejar is not an energy channeler; he’s a text man, in the sense of fine-tuning both his own words and the recordings he builds around them. It’s not that Bejar seems to be fighting the idea of live performance itself — he smiled several times when saxophonist Joseph Shabason played something particularly extreme — but that the narrative running in Bejar’s head is probably always louder than anything around it.


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