September 27, 2010
Halcyon Digest is a record about the joy of music discovery, the thrill of listening for the first time to a potential future favorite, and that sense of boundless possibility when you're still innocent of indie-mainstream politics and your personal canon is far from set. In revisiting that youthful enthusiasm, Deerhunter brilliantly rekindle it, and the result meets Microcastle/Weird Era (Cont.) as the band's most exhilarating work to date. Whether those halcyon days were real or just idealized doesn't matter. With producer Ben Allen, who lent a bass-heavy sheen to Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavilion, these four guys-- lead singer Bradford Cox, singer/guitarist Lockett Pundt, bass player Josh Fauver, and drummer Moses Archuleta-- have created a seamless album of startling emotional clarity.
Deerhunter have never lacked ambition. 2007 breakout Cryptograms came as two discrete halves: one front-loaded with ambient drifts and clanging post-punk aggression, the other blasting off into sunny psych-pop. Microcastle turned out to be a sprawling, ghostly amusement park of a double album, with violence and frail beauty never far from each other. And then there are all those EPs, side projects, and rarities. In blog posts and interviews, Cox has shown himself to be a music lover of the highest order, almost a platonic ideal of the artist as fan.
This record marks a distinctly different approach for the band, more streamlined and stripped down, and in its sparest moments, it echoes the stark intimacy and one-take effortlessness of records like Neil Young's Tonight's the Night or Chris Bell's I Am the Cosmos. Fans of the band's earlier stuff may understandably miss some of the old electric-guitar squall, but Halcyon Digest's expanded instrumental palette-- acoustic guitar, electronic percussion, banjo, autoharp, harmonica, vocal harmonies, and saxophone (!)-- creates endless depths of intricacy and nuance to explore in headphones.
In the past, Deerhunter's gift for garbled sonics and Cox's stream-of-consciousness methods made it easy to downplay the group's lyrical ability. That's not the case here. Whether by Pundt, who sings lead on two of Halcyon Digest's best songs, or Cox, Deerhunter's songwriting congeals into a style all its own, with lyrics moved front-and-center. The words fit perfectly together, down to the most trivial minutia: Cox asking, "Did you stick with me?" at the start of garage-pop fist-pumper "Memory Boy", right after the track people are most likely to skip (funny!), or Pundt mentioning a "marching band" on another uptempo proto-anthem, "Fountain Stairs", as Bill Oglesby's sax first appears.
The topical ground covered here is inspired, too: "Revival", a sort of Southern gothic folk-rock baptism, embraces religion. "I'm saved, I'm saved!" Cox exalts, "I felt his presence heal me." Recorded to four-track, "Basement Scene" "dream[s] a little dream" that soon turns nightmarish: "I don't wanna get old" quickly becomes "I wanna get old" as Cox weighs the alternative. And first single "Helicopter" is a beautifully watery electro-acoustic farewell that uses a tragic Dennis Cooper story about a Russian prostitute (graciously reprinted in the liner notes) to support its emotional bleakness.
Then there's seven-and-a-half-minute finale "He Would Have Laughed", dedicated to Jay Reatard, the Memphis garage rocker who died last winter of drug-related causes at age 29. Its lyrics are the most cryptic on Halcyon Digest-- full sentences are rarely formed before Cox closes them off with his usual crisp consonants. A simple acoustic guitar riff repeats as other percussion elements and electronic tones pan across the track, occasionally joined by the full band. Cox admits to growing "bored as I get older," and then goes into a dream-- "I lived on a farm, yeah/ I never lived on a farm"-- until he finally all but asks, "Where are your friends tonight?" The track cuts off unexpectedly mid-note.
Deerhunter unveiled their new album by asking fans to print out a vintage DIY-style poster, photocopy it, and tape it up all over town. In the last couple of weeks, band members have participated in all-night online chats with some of their most devoted fans. We'll never be able to parse every lyric or tease out every technical intricacy-- though somebody will probably try-- but that is what Halcyon Digest is all about: nostalgia not for an era, not for antiquated technology, but for a feeling of excitement, of connection, of that dumb obsession that makes life worth living no matter how horrible it gets. And then sharing that feeling with somebody else who'll start the cycle all over again.