Imagine if, in 1975, David Bowie decided to collaborate with Van Dyke Parks and John Updike on a rock opera ode to New York City. The result may have sounded something like Poison Season, the tenth album from restless pop explorer Dan Bejar's project Destroyer. Moving on from the dozy, jazz- and disco-inflected pop of his last album Kaputt, Bejar has created something more delicate and nuanced, but no less mercurial than his past work.
Even at its most frustratingly oblique, Bejar's romantic, bohemian evocation of New York City is very endearing. "You can follow a rose wherever it grows," he sings wistfully on "Times Square," and he accordingly follows his muse wherever it takes him. Just like his past work, Poison Season is a slippery creature that you can lose track of as soon as you think you've captured it, but Bejar sounds more generous and less self-conscious than ever before.
"Times Square," which functions as both the centrepiece and bookends of the record - appearing three times in three different versions - bears some immediate similarities to David Bowie's iconic "Young Americans." Its strummed acoustic guitar, upbeat rhythm and jubilant saxophone are clearly indebted to Bowie's glam rock style, but there's something much weirder and woolier going on on this record.
In the striking chiaroscuro portrait shot on the album cover, Bejar is poised but wild-eyed, clean but unkempt. Contradictions like these drive the record, with pieces like the aforementioned "Times Square" or the taut molasses funk of "Archer on the Beach" rubbing up against painstakingly composed and arranged pieces like "Hell," or the drifting "Girl in a Sling," which are largely built around lush strings and pianos.
In the orchestration of these songs, there are shades of musical theatre and brittle chamber pop that lend new dimensions to Destroyer's sound. The jauntily romantic "Hell" moves between George Gershwin and Elton John in a way that feels completely natural, yet surprising. Combined with Bejar's trademark breathy bleat, and strangely conversational but disjointed lyrics, the music seamlessly fills in the gaps, making for a full and rich listening experience. Even in the second half the surprises - such as the electric guitar splashed Jackson Pollock-like across the noisy noir theme "Midnight Meet the Rain" - come with refreshing regularity.
Destroyer's songs, even at their most accessible, don't necessarily rely on choruses, hooks and recurring melodies. The most immediately compelling tracks are those that raise the tempo, such as first single "Dream Lover," which combines a thumping rock 'n' roll rhythm with splatters of exuberant trumpet or the urgent, country-tinged "The River". The more subtle passages of the record shift and mutate without warning; at just under an hour, this is a long record, and there are enough ideas here to fill twice as much time.
The record splinters off in many directions at once, but as a whole it is thankfully kept in focus with exceptionally full and balanced production. The music of Destroyer shows a sense of maturity and identity that is often missing in contemporary indie music, and Poison Season is no exception. Each time you return to it, the unusual contours of the record become more and more comforting and easier to grasp.
Poison Season is out on CD, vinyl and digital formats on Friday August 28.