There are many reasons that Deerhunter's latest album, Halcyon Digest, deserves the sweeping praise it's received since being released in late September. NPR said it "strikes just the right balance between noisy adventurism and pop immediacy"; Pitchfork remarked that the Atlanta quartet "have created a seamless album of emotional clarity"; and even The New York Times noted that the band is able to ride the structure of "a few rudimentary chords ... toward cacophony and rapture." If you've heard the record, then you know these reviews basically get it right.
Deerhunter, more than ever before, have arranged a near-perfect marriage of the avant-garde and the culturally comfortable, cloaking its ambient punk soul in the visage of Motown and Johnson-era fuzz with a strikingly low-key sobriety. But there's something else at the core of Halcyon Digest — or at least at the core of the conversation surrounding it — that makes it so remarkable: It's the first Deerhunter record that hasn't been plagued with an immutable rattle of questions regarding leader Bradford Cox's motives. This evolutionary moment that suggests the band's critics have finally come to terms with its enduring talent and resilience.
Indeed, it wasn't so long ago that Cox's thinly drawn physique — he has Marfan syndrome, a connective tissue disorder that naysayers initially couldn't help but confuse for drug addiction — was just as much a talking point as Deerhunter's music. Equally distracting was the band's combative live show, which saw Cox don sundresses and spew fake blood, occasionally even subjecting the crowd to "rambling, unsettling tirades about his childhood," as MTV's James Montgomery once put it. Then, of course, was Cox's all-too-public online wars with musician Samara Lubelski and LA Weekly's James Weiss, calling the former a "diva ... with this guise of taking her art really seriously" (between profanities) and denigrating the talent of the latter simply because he questioned Deerhunter's pervasive buzz — giving us our first glimpse of the very stream of troubled consciousness that ultimately can make for such compelling music. But for most of 2007, it all felt reactive and petty, taking the attention that should've been focused on Deerhunter's excellently odd Cryptograms and focusing it instead on Cox's provocative persona.
Considering how difficult it is for a band to command the public's attention for any amount of time, you might wonder if Cox feels fortunate that such derision and peripheral interference managed not to overshadow his music ad infinitum. Now, however, nothing could be further from the truth: By some combination of an increased discernment (i.e. Cox finally ascertained that he was not helping by using Deerhunter's blog as a verbal minefield) and a critical shift away from the band's image to its actual songs, the quartet now finally enjoys the simple stature as innovators. Sure, cultural oracles like Thurston Moore, Karen O and Trent Reznor intuited Deerhunter's potential long before now, but Halcyon Digest puts to bed for the rest of us any question of whether the band is hollow and contrived or lasting and exceptional. (Hint: The guy from Sonic Youth was right all along).
Unfolding over the course of 45 minutes, Halcyon Digest comments on the way we shape our memories to reflect how we desire to remember our pasts. And in Cox's words, "how that's kind of sad." Strung out through tales of religious conversion ("Revival" and "Helicopter"), the pangs of childhood ("Don't Cry," "Memory Boy" and "Desire Lines") and the ennui of adulthood ("Basement Scene" and "He Would Have Laughed"), the narrative of amended reminiscence is one that's percolated through Cox's lyrics before, though never this cohesively. He came close on Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel — Cox's debut album under his solo alias, Atlas Sound — but it's clear that he and occasional lyricist Lockett Pundt found a way here to stay consistent without being overly conceptual or intentionally oblique. Previously, Cox has inferred that his lyrics are mere free associations, that they pale in importance to Deerhunter's evolving sound, but this collection largely belies that thinking. The lulled, genre-rich timbre of its music is paramount, to be sure, but it shouldn't be overlooked that he and Pundt's minute snapshots of youthful ephemera are getting sharper by the album, further making the case that they're not the finicky hacks that Weiss and others once made them out to be.
Musically, Halcyon Digest is the most delicate and accessible material Deerhunter has ever produced. But, those descriptors can be deceiving — for all of its devotion to popular music of the '60s and '90s, the quartet isn't the next Arcade Fire or Shins, and if you read between the lines of Cox's recent interviews, they don't want to be. Rather, Deerhunter pay homage to the greats less by emulating their sound than by allowing their collective countenance to unconsciously enhance their palette. On "Basement Scene," we can sense doo-wop's apparition, but the song has hardly been cut and pasted. Likewise, on "Desire Lines," the band's love of The Breeders and Sonic Youth is transparent, but what comes across is the band's unique ability to infuse pop with atmosphere rather than being perturbed at its supposed aesthetic theft.
Indeed, Halcyon Digest ebbs and flows with a hypnotic and propulsive originality that suggests Deerhunter know exactly where they want to sit in pop music's lineage, which historically rewards those who tastefully build on what's already there than those who thwart convention for the sake of novelty. Whether critics like Weiss believe it or not, Cox & Co. are equipped to incite our imaginations at the same time they're reminding us of times past. Of course, whether those times are accurately remembered remains another matter entirely.