Halcyon Digest

(4AD; 2010)

By Alan Baban | 8 October 2010

And so the oracular, mopey asskickers return once more! Halcyon Digest—as in, Bradford Cox helpfully tells us, how we “write and rewrite and edit our memories”—is actually a delightfully simple pop record with hot-and-wired cash-flow codas, choruses, bridges borrowed from boogie-woogie, saccharine prom jams: the works. Every song announces itself with the same refreshing “here goes!” charm. Deerhunter is giving us their sales talk and we can thank Cox that it makes zero sense; it just sounds great. Now his band’s chucked the bombinations of Cryptograms‘ (2007) fuzzy first side, dialed down a shitload of the white noise, a shitload of the creaky slam-bang theatrics, and decided—and what a fucking great decision it is—to make no more decisions; to not overthink things; to just jar through the canon and prettily cacophonise whatever takes their fancy. Which, very awesomely, happens to be most of absolutely everything including the Byrds and Atlas Sound. Halcyon Digest is Deerhunter’s counterpoint on Deerhunter As Depressing Ass Music.

The music is still quite depressing. “He Would Have Laughed,” the album’s tribute to the late Jay Reatard, blasts-out with a guitar line looped till it’s ponderous, Cox growing hoarser as he sings, “I’m a gold-digging man.” It’s the track that reminds me the most of his solo project—up until a song proper suddenly issues forth, halfway through, full-bodied outta the runny synths, closing with Cox belting his bow-out lines, the sorta thesis of the record: “What did you waaaant to be / AHHH, SHUT YOUR MOUTH.” Then, without warning, the track stops. As a closer it’s perfect, the aesthetic of the record maxed out and made clear: simple stuff straining to break the cover of noisy, complex edifices. This is territory the band has certainly covered, but never with this directness or surety. (Though “He Would Have Laughed” is more a low-simmer tone piece that turns into twanging discord. It’s also the coolest aural heave-ho since, like, “Fillmore Jive.”)

The brunt of Halcyon Digest is daring, go-ahead stuff. It is twisted indie rock music still alive to both opportunities crazy and unabashed slave-raiding of the canon; like kindred-spirit Pavement on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994), Deerhunter make to chop and screw their way through a lot of traditional-sounding songs, doing their very best to make guitar/bass/drums (and saxophone!) sound dangerous and unlimited. They respect and respectfully slaughter their influences for the love of what they do best, which is to sound and not sound like Deerhunter. Even when they’re sounding exactly like Springsteen, etc.

Like Malkmus before him, Cox has an intractable catch in his voice—noticeably more grazed (cigarettes?) on this latest collection, more worn and tired of itself. It’s a sensibility that worms its way into the loose architecture of the new material, swallowing influences and, yeah, digesting them. (Well, it’s good to know the band’s gastroenterological system is diseased and fucked.) Those same influences are set forth into some swollen ulcerated othersphere where there is no Dylan and there is no Neil Young, no Breeders or Thurston Moore or Nirvana: there is no real famous band you can think of anymore. In the guise of Halcyon Digest, all our favourite singers who couldn’t sing get reduced to rouge and blusher on Bradford Cox’s face as he exuberates across the catwalk of his imagination. Dude can write some fucking awesome songs, no doubt, but what’s always disentangled him from the blogosphere raff is a clear-eyed devotion to the music he loves and an open-mindedness towards all the shit he might love if it included more Lockett Pundt guitar solos and saxophone. I always hear a humility in his appropriation of, say, the Everly Brothers “All I Have to Do is Dream” for his own “Basement Scene” (trippily tape-hissing and coming off in his naive weariness as all of fifteen years old) or the marvellous “blow-me-down!” harmonica that cuts through and lionizes sure future-single “Memory Boy,” makes it sound friendly like it’s chummy subject-matter of “loose-leaf joints in jeans.”

So, this is rock history as written by the rock band Deerhunter, which means no more fucking Pete Townsend fucking up absolutely everything! and, also, because Lockett and Bradford have copped to the fact they write pretty-pretty music—arrow-split heart-jams basically about killing time with Animal Collective and Spoon—because these dudes have, in all seriousness, taken their back catalogue to the cleaners and decided that they really, really just want to be blissful; because Halcyon Digest is bliss, it is Deerhunter’s best album to date—their first not to belie some raptorial need to plum my ears with mooching loudness. Because I think the band itself has realised what a tip they’re on now that their two lead songwriters can successfully make apprehension sound sexy and, weirdly, like Bruce Springsteen (check: the safe-blowing saxophone solos on “Coronado”). Because Deerhunter is, alongside those other bands they kill time with, a bizarrely prolific and unfailingly lovely outfit. Because of this I am sorta jazzed that Deerhunter the band has apparently taken a collective decision to fuck distortion…for the most part, OK?