Album Review: Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest


Deerhunter has always struck me as a band that’s in-but-not-of modern music culture, a quartet of guys old enough to remember when technology didn’t dominate social interaction, but young enough to get excited about the shift nonetheless. It wasn’t so long ago that the band used the Internet to distribute its barbs against journalists or producers that offended them, harangues that exhibited the same kind of brashness as their cross-dressing stage show. (I refer mostly to Bradford Cox, of course, but I’m estimating the disdain for naysayers that influenced most of his actions was shared). Then, Microcastle leaked long before its release date in 2008, an unfortunate occurrence that, at first, brought out an understandably reactive Cox, but almost as quickly saw the band retreat into digital reclusivity. Other than occasional blips of YouTube nostalgia, free Micromixes or record announcements, the once lively online stream of Cox-ian thought has evolved into a muted pool of rare, but necessary publicity and detritus.

How does this relate to Halcyon Digest, though? The shift matters because it indirectly marked the maturing of a band from online lightning rods to near-masterful pop writers, a group of artists who began spending less time trying to glean a reaction from cultural elites than perfecting their craft. They also became less self-obsessed with making art statements than releasing material that reflected their most influential, long-standing tastes, the results of which are embedded in Halcyon Digest through-and-through. At one turn, the ghosts of Motown, at another, the gods of late-60s fuzz, all filtered through Deerhunter’s self-cemented ambient punk aesthetic. It’s not an either/or argument — the band’s best work isn’t derived from a lack of online interaction, of course — but, it can’t be ignored that, in their solitude, Deerhunter have matured.

To some, though, this could suggest selling out or becoming a hollow, predictable version of a band that used to sound dangerous and isolating. To be sure, Halcyon Digest is Deerhunter’s calmest, most accessible record yet — a far cry from 2005’s Turn It Up Faggot — but it represents a natural evolution more than a thin ploy for sustainability. More accurately, it’s a collection of songs that marries the band’s relatively new fascination with Motown and Ableton wizardy to its well-known psychedelic and shoegaze influences, often times to gorgeous effect. “Helicopter”, a twinkling, shimmery nod to loneliness first heard live via BBC broadcast in May, is the best example of this union. It’s dreamy and longing in the vein of earlier songs like “Agoraphobia” or “Vox Humana”, but its lineage is harder to trace, affirming that these guys are owning their sound more than ever before.

In those terms, “Elevator”, “Desire Lines”, “Memory Boy”, and “Basement Scene” are just as rewarding. With some combination of glistening swells, syncopated krautrock, or girl group-isms, these songs feel like the logical step to Microcastle and Weird Era Cont. Another cluster of songs belongs in a category previously uncharted for the band: “Don’t Cry”, “Revival”, “Fountain Stairs” and “Coronado” are garage pop works that are economical in length, but dynamic and rich in scope. Banjo weaves its way into “Revival”‘s jangly, clip-clopping tenor while the penultimate “Coronado” puts a fairly long saxophone solo at its forefront, which only backs off when Cox mimics its melody during the final bars of the song.

Here, I’ll admit that I get a little lost, and this is coming from someone who loves the band’s more bizarre material. No, my problem isn’t the ambition, it’s the feeling that, just for a moment, they traded dresses for brass instruments, subtly suggesting they’ll still pull the unexpected just for shock value, no matter how much it tarnishes that earlier mentioned growth in the process. Or, maybe I’m not catching other cues on the record that point in a Springsteen-esque direction. Regardless, that feeling doesn’t last long — “He Would Have Laughed” wastes no time before its delayed acoustic loops, percussive dexterity (best I can tell, there are three layers of drums, and they all interact seamlessly) and washy synths serve as a reminder that Deerhunter is one of the most interesting bands making music today, a loose, confident and well-versed unit that will only get better with time.

Cox has inferred that the title Halcyon Digest suggests the way in which we remember people, places and events in the order and manner that we choose to. For the most part, the lyrics — often times obscured by dense reverb or buried in a psych haze — align with this suggestion, as Cox paints images of hopeful children and bored adults always seeking some type of salvation, but rarely being truthful with themselves about how to obtain it. While intriguing, the lyrics ultimately take a backseat to the more obvious sonic progression the band has made on the record. Moreover, riffing on adolescence, his health issues and the ennui inevitably attached to getting older is not new for Cox, and that’s OK because he’s yet to appear redundant — nor has the lush, ever-evolving soundtrack that backs these thoughts.