Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Deerhunter of Our Halcyon Dreams (CD Review) by Alison Ross

Once upon a time, during the band's earliest years, singer Bradford Cox called Deerhunter Atlanta's only surrealist punk band. I wonder what he would call it now, considering its eternal and rather enigmatic sonic evolutions. Sure, there are surrealist punk elements still lingering in Deerhunter music, but it seems to me that Bradford and company are determined not to be too mired in a signature sound. They appear paranoiacally wary of being pigeonholed, which can be considered both a good and a bad thing: Good because it keeps listeners on our toes, but bad because perhaps Deerhunter is too overreachingly ambitious at times. And when that happens, it can lead to humiliating failures.

Not that Halcyon Digest is by any means a failure. In fact in most ways it is a fantastically resounding success. But the persistent ethic of evolution intrinsic to Deerhunter's identity is a little frustrating. It's as though Bradford is so achingly aware of his own mortality that he must play around in all musical genres to fortify a fortress against the inevitable. He is fanatically driven to reinterpret every element of every musical iteration in existence.

And this can be exhiliarating, but it can also be exhausting. Some of us would like to be able to "pin down" Deerhunter's aural personality. But obviously that's the point - to exist as an elusive entity in order to defy complacency and ensure legacy. Never mind that the legacy might be a baffling one; that's also the point.

Again, though, Deerhunter does retain some surrealist punk ambient elements in its ever-changing template. And the only reason I imply that this is a positive thing is because the surrealist punk ambience is the most interesting facet of this decidedly multi-faceted band.

Halcyon Digest is an intelligent if somewhat incohesive record. The rather clinical title suggests a journal of nostalgic reveries. Since Bradford has displayed an obsessive bias toward the musical aesthetic of earlier eras (such as motown), the album is steeped in "halcyon" echoes that summon a bucolic reverence for simpler songs unencumbered by a weighty musical history.

This is not to say that the layered ideal is not still prominent in Deerhunter's music; the band still enjoys piling variegated sounds on top of each other (stuttering drums, wispy vocals, raspy acoustic strums, gleaming guitars) or weaving them around each other to achieve a sort of off-kilter harmony. But the layers are more gossamer; whereas in the past the layers were like silky sheets, this time they are more like sheer curtains.

Halcyon Digest frequently resembles Atlas Sound, Bradford's other band, with its reliance on acoustic guitar and airy minimalism. In fact, the album vacillates between the earthy and the ethereal, with more deliberate emphasis on earthiness, whereas in past Deerhunter albums the celestial shone through more shimmeringly.

Atlas Sound, on the other hand, has always been the more organic offshoot of Bradford's musical temperament. The beatific luminosity is still present in Deerhunter, but it's more balanced on this album with a rootsier approach. And, of course, the rootsier, more stripped-down approach may in fact be impelled by Deerhunter's desire to reach out to a wider audience while still maintaining its indie integrity.

The production, too, is notably different, with vocals often pushed more up front, and the instruments having a clearer presentation, rather than being shrouded in distortion and cacophony, as was the case on Cryptograms, especially.

Some critics have mentioned that a few songs on Halcyon Digest are underdeveloped, as though this is a lazy, unconscious feature that jeopardizes full enjoyment of the tunes. But I posit that these songs are very consciously underdeveloped and that this is what makes them that much more compelling. Like a painting by Basquiat, these songs exude a primitive childlike attitude and revel in inviting multiple and even confused interpretations from listeners. Deerhunter has already shown itself more than capable of making fully realized songs, but it prefers to dabble in fragments at times, and there is a paradoxical wholeness to these fragmentary renderings.

Standout songs on the album include the languidly luminescent Helicopter, the vaguely Beatles-eque Memory Boy, the rousing He Would Have Laughed, and the two Lockett Pundt-penned and sung tunes, Desire Lines and Fountain Stairs. In fact, with his side projects Lotus Plaza and The Runaway Five, and his substantial contributions to Deerhunter, Pundt is proving himself to be as formidable a musical presence as Cox.

Lyrically the songs also summon forth memories both halcyon and harrowing. Helicopter, for example, involves a tragic story about a prostitute, while other songs rather cryptically touch on themes of youth, old age, and death.

Perhaps Deerhunter's trademark IS an elusive evolution towards an eternity that encompasses both the past and present, and that harolds the future of music in unorthodox ways. Perhaps this is what engenders the surrealism native to its persona: The ability to consistently shift shapes, to align the disparate planets of sound to construct a cosmic mosaic of music.

Perhaps we are not suppsed to really "get" Deerhunter intellectually, but simply absorb its music spiritually.

Perhaps Deerhunter has always been a part of our own personal halcyon digests.

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