By Andrew Hall | 3 April 2012
That Bradford Cox is unpredictable is at this point something of a given. This was clear from early Deerhunter shows, which were often prone to chaos; Cox, clad in a dress, seemed to relish in playing the provocateur, leading his band through chaotic, drone-heavy renditions of pop songs. And the band’s internet presence, before it gave way to a remarkably generous string of self-released, free-download EPs and mixtapes, was every bit as potentially polarizing, marked by impassioned rants and hastily-deleted impulse posts between photographs of feces and other arguably frivolous information. That within eighteen months of that debut they returned with a record as approachable as 2008’s Microcastle and developed a reputation as a gimmick-free, formidable guitar band seemingly focused almost entirely on playing their music as effectively as possible seemed a sharp (and welcome) shift in direction.
However, that doesn’t change the fact that Cox is and likely always will be a wildcard, as evidenced by a recent Atlas Sound performance in Minneapolis proves. Supposedly following a relatively normal set, he let his stage time degenerate into an hour-long loop of the riff from “My Sharona” as he barked instructions at the heckler who prompted it, much to the amusement or terror of onlookers. The last Deerhunter show I saw had a moment in which Cox stopped “Agoraphobia” in its first few bars in order to tell someone in the audience not to do whatever it was they were doing (I couldn’t see) because they were making it impossible to keep time.
For his tour in support of the stripped-down, remarkably bummed-out, and desperately insular Parallax (2011), Cox kept details to an absolute minimum. Unlike past Atlas Sound tours in which he has put bands together to play his material, he set up a full band’s equipment and a fairly sophisticated looping system, then played all of it solo, rearranging the songs as needed to make them work given that they would often be reduced to a single drumbeat, a single bass line, and a largely unchanging chord progression. As such, a song like “Recent Bedroom” emerged in a recognizable state only several minutes into a six or seven-minute rendition, and “Angel is Broken”—my favorite off the newest record—was divorced from its riffs, making its aching chorus all the sadder.
He threw his audience a bone with a straightforward guitar-and-voice treatment of Logos (2009) highlight “Shelia,” covered Beat Happening’s “Youth” and dedicated it to Calvin Johnson (who was, in fact, in attendance), and made another dedication to former Deerhunter guitarist Whitney Petty—then, after stating that he was playing a very sentimental song and said she was the least sentimental person he’s ever known, changed his dedication to be “for unrequited faggots.” When he returned for his rather lengthy encore, he said that he had another two hours of looping music he could play if anyone really wanted to hear it, and it was clear that he was only half-joking.
It’s clear that Cox is still very much the same artist he was five years ago. Even if he has reined in some of his most extreme tendencies as a performer and produced several remarkably approachable records, both solo and with Deerhunter, as he continues to develop, he’s made clear that he’s never going to give his audience exactly what they’re expecting. When I saw Atlas Sound in 2009, using the Selmanaires as his backing band, he reinterpreted Logos as aching country music, emphasizing the strength of those songs’ stunning melodies. With Parallax, he’s far more concerned with keeping its atmosphere intact onstage, and he did so remarkably well.