Deerhunter always delivers what they promise: Their last two LPs, Cryptograms and Microcastle/Weird Era Cont. were, respectively, cryptic and weird. Self-consciously arty in the tradition of Sonic Youth and Radiohead, which is mostly to say noisy, Deerhunter’s approach to indie rock has involved abrasive electric guitars and lots of psychedelic sound effects that might have been more conventionally pretty if there weren’t dozens of them ebbing in and out of every single track. Halcyon Digest is a notably unforeboding title for a Deerhunter album, a dollar-word way of saying what we non-artistes might refer to as “looking back on the god old days.” And as a matter of fact, that’s exactly what Deerhunter’s latest sounds like: blissful reminiscence, rendered strangely.
“Helicopter,” for example, has a chorus—an honest-to-God chorus that sounds pretty the first time you hear it and gets repeated a couple of times before the song ends. That’s already kind of a novelty for a band whose last album contained one real song (“Nothing Ever Happened,” which is sadly not rivaled by any of the material here) amid an evocative mess of sketches and sound collages. Bradford Cox’s sighing vocals hit all the right nostalgic notes too—and you’d be forgiven for thinking he was looking back in laughter if it weren’t for those barely decipherable lyrics: “No one cares for me/I have minimal needs/I keep no company/And now they are through with me.”
Which turns out to be something of a pattern on Halcyon Digest: Cox bleating out his shut-in manifestos over deceptively cheery arrangements. The rollicking “Revival” has a wonderful percussive crunch, calling to mind a more rhythmically inclined Dinosaur Jr., but check the liner notes and you get: “Freedom, silence, they don’t make no sense/Darkness, always.” Likewise, “Coranado” sets nothing less than a confrontation with mortality against a raucous sax solo, and “Memory Boy” turns waning childhood into fodder for blustery synth-pop. On the one hand, garden-variety existential angst marks an improvement in Cox’s disposition following Microcastle, fixated as it was on suicide and claustrophobia.
On the other, Cox’s refusal to let any light in, lyrically, is a disappointing and, frankly, childish act of recalcitrance, especially given the rich emotional palette covered by the album’s varied compositions, which can be loud and fun or pensive and heartbreaking, or all of the above. The band covers enough dissimilar sonic terrain to give Halcyon Digest the feel of a manic pop mixtape, with just enough common elements—ghostly sound effects, heavy reverb, and echoing vocals—to maintain its ruminative mood.
But more than those choice production effects, what makes the album navigable is the band’s newly attentive approach to song structure and melody. I’ve always thought it pretty obvious that the rage for noise-pop among up-and-coming indie rockers owes in no small part to the difficulty of sorting out the real talents from their equally cacophonous imitators. Deerhunter definitely belongs with the former, and they pretty well prove it this time out, mostly by dropping their art-damaged defense mechanisms and giving up the good stuff more immediately and more often. Their dalliances with stoned-out ambient noise are more hypnotic than disorienting, and the rock tracks, previously engineered to make ears bleed, are content to get toes tapping. Just compare the first track—an enchanting tone poem misleadingly titled “Earthquake!”—with any other opener the band has set to record.
It’s a transformation that no one could have expected; given the back catalogue that’s brought them to the top of the art-rock heap, though, it’s also worth asking if a kinder, gentler Deerhunter is really what anyone wanted. While most of my critical instincts tell me that Halcyon Digest is a leap forward, the sacrifice of Deerhunter’s visceral aspect is a pretty steep price to pay for it. The band’s previous albums could be alienating and messy, but they also drew listeners repeatedly back into the fray by virtue of their primal energy. It remains to be seen if improved craftsmanship can make up for a deficit of cathartic force.
That said, Halcyon Digest‘s finest moment suggests that Deerhunter will get by just fine without the histrionics. The closer, a tribute to the late Jay Reatard called “He Would Have Laughed,” surpasses the emotional power of the band’s previous highpoints when Cox concludes seven minutes of atmospheric guitar-pop with a seething elegy: “Where do your friends go?/Where do they see you?/What did you want to be?/Ahh shut the hell…shut your mouth.” It’s as honest a statement of loss as you’re ever likely to hear from Cox, who’s hyperbolic lyrics have previously communicated personal tragedy in terms of crucifixion, disembowelment, and other, similarly gory signifiers. At the end of the first album on which he’s managed to keep all of his organs inside his body, it’s like Cox is finally letting us see his heart.