Atlas Sound


(4AD; 2011)

By Alan Baban | 8 November 2011

Here’s how the first few seconds of Parallax—and yes, that’s another weird, nominal title for an indie rock album from a major label this past year; or whatever—play out: subtle knocks and a delicately riding acoustic guitar going (we think) somewhere. Because its pale-sounding strut suggests movement. The guitar tinkles in a dark and moody space to bait us, but we’ve already been baited so we know there’s an explosion: coming right up, and because we know, because we’ve heard this—fuse of a guitar; that riff, in effect, though we’ve heard this whole particular “somewhere”—somewhere before, we still go along for the ride. Same vehicle, same engine, on unbending tracks of reverb to a pretty-as-hell oblivion. Because oblivion, these days, is still pretty.

Well, the good news first: it’s even prettier this time; has a more polished front-cover by rock photographer Mick Rock, has a production rear that glides more than it bumps, and a conductor (in the newly bouffanted form of Bradford Cox) who likes to let things take off, if that’s what they want to do, that’s fine by him. It’s the same incidental music as he’s released before, and there are no crash landings allowed; Parallax continues the same, slow, incremental outward orbit that this songwriter has personally re-defined for years. When, on opener “The Shakes,” a wet seal of layered-on feedback finally confirms after all that baiting that, yes, we’re on some niche-Bradford Cox shit right here, the fact’s almost comforting in its consistency with a back catalogue that values nothing more, prizes nothing less. Repetition, to me, is the identifiable feel of Bradford Cox and his Atlas Sound project in particular. But actually, I’ll go one further than that: with Parallax (bad news alert), repetition is starting to seem like the whole point.

Rewind. Because we know we’ve heard this—guitar; that riff; the whole set-up shebang—“somewhere before.” And we liked it when we heard it before. In 2007, on Cryptograms, it sounded “spectral,” or it sounded “supernatural, but not unpleasantly so,” a bit “spiritual” when the occasion called for more religious-like undertakings of attention, and then, when the occasion-simulacrum blistered and music, at lightning, dorm-room-assisted Internet speeds, became more a scabbed-over obsession that intermittently oozed white pus (and not, like, a healthy body of easily identifiable influences), it sounded a lot like Spiritualized did, before I’d really even listened to Spiritualized. It sounded spaced-out.

It was listless and it sounded like whatever I wanted it to sound like, when I was open to that choice. One even felt the music, interstitial as it was, flatly cool with occupying a space between one thing and another but becoming neither, was itself, weirdly, as much a product of the listener’s imagination as it was the creator’s skill. Cox was in his bedroom, me in mine, the both of us chasing screensavers and collapsing every dumb thing we could into the one big thing that might, with a little luck, sound like all of the above, but moreso—and with some fucking saxophone! For a while, in 2008, it sounded, like everything did to me when they were coming up: like Animal Collective. Before I’d really heard of them, before the Internet (and a superb interview with Laetitia Sadier on this very site) even made them a Big Thing for me to discover/re-discover in the company of my Internet Friends, it sounded a lot like Stereolab. And when Sadier herself poured out some vocals on the chequered sprawl of Bradford Cox’s last solo joint, the indubitable Logos (2009), when she helped make “Quick Canal”‘s eight-minute run the best eight-minute run of Cox’s career, well, it sounded then, like it sounds right now, like it’s sounded for the past two years of various Atlas Sound and Deerhunter EPs, LPs, live albums, and iTunes shoe-ins, which is to say that in this present incarnation at the start of Parallax it—guitar; moody riff; tinkle-tinkles—still sounds a lot like it did, in 2007, on the track “Hazel Street.” (But, of course, moreso.)

For me, Cox’s first truly great song, and the template from which much of the spectacular run he’s been on these past few years has been pulled, “Hazel Street” is emblematic of all I’ve loved about indie rock music over the past decade, whilst also—more obvious now that Cox’s project is entering the second-act of its evolution and popularity—emblematic of everything that makes me nervous for where he’s going to take this sound in the future. On Parallax, like a director who’s become bored of artfully combing for inspiring nits from his personal life (now that personal life is presumably more palatable and includes Britt Daniel, more falafels), Cox has taken his whole project and balled it outwards, literally outwards and above, way above to deep-outer space. He’s turned to genre, pastiche, and on several tracks here to a distracting and slightly cheesy prism of science-fiction sound-effects that do more to manufacture ambiguity than they do to illuminate any real meaning these songs might have. But this is what Cox has always done, since the beginning—to obfuscate, smear with electronics, and record his shit on loop—so why is it suddenly bugging me now? Why, I find myself asking, when the music is this pretty, is it that Parallax doesn’t resonate with me in the same way that the rest of his back catalogue does, when it essentially sounds the same, and the essential reason why I like this music is the comfort of its repetition, its long, shiny, extroverted trip to nowhere at all?

I go back to “Hazel Street.” I keep on going back to “Hazel Street,” its pleading sounds and constant, constant push-forwards through layers of guitar fuzz and simulated pain; I go back to it and think there’s a good reason this, and not some other similarly constituted track, was Deerhunter’s certified set-opener for much of 2009 and ’10, by which point they had some real psychedelic stormers to choose from, none of which (not even “Desire Lines,” a great song, which eventually did become their set-opener) could compete with “Hazel Street”‘s particular blend of resignation and paradoxical optimism. If dude has basically been carving out territory and improvising songs between the two pillars of Resignation and Optimism for half a decade now, it’s been our gain. Although nothing’s hit the same sweet-spot as Cryptograms‘s almost intuitive-sounding second side, the run that has led Bradford Cox from that point to here—from his bedroom to indie-festivals to radio to adverts and Spoon, to ironic sex-symbol status—has left one of the richest trails this genre’s ever seen.

Halycon Digest (2010), Logos, Microcastle and Weird Era Contd. (2009): those albums where he nervously mined the gap between sight-reading off his personal pain while still, hopefully, looking off into the horizon, where the trail ends, that’s a great fucking run of indie rock records. Fast-forward to now, and on Parallax, the trail has finally come to its end, the run is temporarily over (until that new Deerhunter album surfaces), the future, now, is belatedly here. And it sounds a lot like Bradford Cox. Most worryingly: it sounds nothing like him at all. Before he was a nervous man singing nervous songs. Now he’s a confident, praying man, singing, well, the same nervous songs.

To be more clear: dude has looped-the-loop on himself. He’s travelled in one direction so far and so long that he’s re-treading on old tracks. Though he’s changed through time, the ground beneath him is ultimately un-changed ‘cept for a few nervous footprints from years ago. And so it’s slightly uncomfortable to hear Cox find himself so completely on songs like “Te Amo,” with its sweetly cycled piano parts, and even “Doldrums,” where the sense of space in an instrumental which would have hinted at loneliness years ago is now made to feel claustrophobic because, one senses, Cox has expanded, and this new expansion and solidity sometimes jars with what can be described as his backing-tracks’ fully-formed-lessness. I realize I’m comparing B.C. to a giant penis in the near-uterine lap of his music’s vagina, or something, but I implore you to consider what living as a parasitic guest in that vagina would feel like if the penis inside it suddenly grew way bigger than you’re used to. Not to ruin the surprise ending, but it would and does sound a lot like Parallax. Which is to say that penis is suddenly a lot closer to my face.

However, I do still like this album. You simply can’t deny the closing trifecta of “Terra Incognita,” “Flagstaff,” and “Lightworks”; the former two being the reverse of what the rest of this album’s all about (as in, they’re adventurous excursions into the unknown; and not rote and confident re-appraisals of old excursions), whereas “Lightworks” is perhaps the only track here that fully benefits from Cox’s new nit-ridden confidence, maybe because it’s the only track that truly sounds like it’s been created by that new past-its-pains voice. But Parallax, as a whole, is a minor work to me—the dirty, unwarranted plumbing of old rock music—the gutter where amplifier feedback coils and disappears quickly like smoke from some haphazardly tossed bonfire wood. And, though it’s fun, pretty, well-constructed, and hits the buttons, those very facets are in danger, in the absence of Cox’s beautiful vulnerability, of becoming what this sound is all about. “Let them breathe,” Cox puts it to his own foot-pedals, on the resounding and literally re-sounding gem that occupies the second slot on this album (“Amplifier”)—by the end, one wishes he’d instead posed the suggestion to himself.