Album Review: Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest

Picking a path between Bradford Cox's dreamy solo work and their fierier moments with deft pose

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, is it? With glo-fi’s explosion we’re suddenly awash with tender feelings for a past that never was, but deep down we know it’s an artifice; a lie cooked up in the sad chambers of the post-lapsarian human brain. Bradford Cox understands all this. He’s even built an album around your pain; a sensual lament on “the way we write and rewrite and edit our memories to be a digest version of what we want to remember”.

With [a]Deerhunter[/a] and solo project [a]Atlas Sound[/a], the Atlanta, GA musician is fast inking pages on the American underground’s latest great songbook. A death-obsessed outsider like Cocteau’s Orpheus without the jawline, he makes pop abstractions of a fiercely introspective bent. Left to his own devices, Cox’s looped FX can sometimes see him vanish completely in a kind of infinite, hall-of-mirrors regress. But if the ‘shoegaze punk’ of [a]Deerhunter[/a] is traditionally his more straightforward outlet, fourth album ‘Halcyon Digest’ sees the boundaries between the two projects blur increasingly.

Gone is the explicit menace of ‘Cryptograms’ and the bluster of ‘’Microcastle’, replaced by hazy tracks like opener ‘Earthquake’, which slopes in on a crunching, lugubrious beat before unfolding as an epic number in [a]Atlas Sound[/a]’s compass-spinning vein. It’s lush but not especially immediate, with more than a little of the ghost-choir feel of [a]10cc[/a]’s ‘I’m Not In Love’. Meanwhile ‘Sailing’’s spindly ramble recalls [a]Sparklehorse[/a]’s freewheeling melancholy, and stand-out ‘Helicopter’ uses soft, splashy textures to create a rainbow panorama of electro-acoustic beauty, like mist suspended over a waterfall.

The punchier tracks are shorter and more unassuming than before, and the band sometimes feels a little too tethered to a kind of stilted indie freakbeat to fully flex its formidable powers. Not that we’ll complain when it results in songs as beautifully restrained as single ‘Revival’, whose swinging, ’50s pop sparkles like coins in a wishing well, with a lyric that draws disturbing lines between memory and religious feeling. ‘Memory Boy’ is similarly good, its Spectorite exuberance masking yet another lost-boy lyric from Cox (“Try to recognise your son/In your eyes, he’s gone”), while guitarist Lockett Pundt steps in for vocal duties on ‘Desire Lines’’ kraut-laced Roxy Music jam.

Finally ‘He Would Have Laughed’ finds Cox staring down the spectre of death, sounding by turns angry, sad and bewildered as he pays touching tribute to late friend [a]Jay Reatard[/a] over a refractive acoustic loop: “With sweetness comes suffering/I won’t rest ’til I can’t breathe/I can’t breathe with you looking at me”.

For all its occasional lack of bite and drama, ‘Halcyon Digest’’s tender, transgressive
pop proves a fine and focused addition to a uniquely haunting body of work. Cherish it like you would a phantom limb.

Alex Denney

Click here to get your copy of Deerhunter’s
‘Halcyon Digest’ from Rough Trade Shops.