Words by Taylor Hobson
Critics and listeners embraced Deerhunter for what it could have been more than what it was with Cryptograms , the band’s breakthrough album, burdening it with buzz for many listeners like myself. For how well the band recognized its desire to place a coating of lush production and vocals over accessible rock, the result seemed haggard: The back-and-forth between glammed-out grunge and ambient experiment felt more like indecision than range. Microcastle  improved in leaps but not bounds, crafting sharper and more numerous pop songs but still lacking some polish and cohesion.
Luckily, their latest album Halcyon Digest  realizes in every way the potential that Deerhunter has always suggested it could reach. What makes the album even more triumphant for the band is its improvement and accomplishment without changing the trajectory of their vision. No great upheaval of method or compromise of initial identity was required; they simply did better here what they always did before, mastering it along the way.
Even the best albums can compel a listener to organize its tracks into tiers – Microcastle  being a prime example – but this album takes cohesion to the point of transcending song inequality. Halcyon Digest’s  success lies in its flawless production. The band introduces every element into the songs’ sonic environment fluidly and with great care, allowing their sound to flourish throughout. In the larger picture, there is now less distance between the precision of the intended singles and the rest of the album – much less than with Microcastle standouts “Nothing Ever Happened” and “Never Stops.” But within each song the addition and subtraction of instruments demands the most attention. These interactions, along with the replacement of the fleeting pleasures of pop hooks with subtle changes in melody and mood, supply the album’s perfect blend of tones into one organic, fluctuating mass.
Halcyon Digest integrates layers rather than building them, giving a sense of dimensionality past the linear. Its songs constantly play with negative space while simultaneously constructing forms. Whereas in the past Bradford Cox’s reverberating moans struck the ear with a harsh modulation, here it’s found just the right amount of softness to blur the edges and melt with the other elements. But no character is compromised; you can still hear the breaks in his voice like the swipe of fingers changing chords on steel guitar strings.
The single “Helicopter,” only slightly brighter than the rest of the album, introduces the melody by means of mirrored vocals and the bursts of a synthesized keyboard trill, then increases complexity by injecting various sounds and allows the once bare foundation to blossom and move forward. In the same way, “Don’t Cry” infuses character within its instruments, creating less a rhythm and more a sensation that the drums are trying (and failing) to shake the distortion of the guitar, moving like a locomotive’s gears.
The most representative track might be the closer “He Would Have Laughed.” A seven-and-a-half minute running time normally suggests either an epic, multi-part rock extravaganza or a tiresome decoration to signal the end of a “work of art.” Here, despite the length, the song moves surprisingly well. Though still at a comfortable pace, it doesn’t need fanfare but grace to make the length a non-issue. Most notably, the band finds this around five minutes in, with certain elements dropping off, others picking up, and Kid-A-esque swell-to-nowhere in between. Moving, compelling, but not jarring.
It’s difficult not to describe Halcyon Digest in impressionistic terms; like abstract painting, it speaks in moods and emotions. What’s most impressive is how well the band avoids boredom despite the aptness of that analogy. To take one’s time integrating layers and pacing songs at such a deliberate tempo – in essence, to be so careful – should not result in anything near as compelling as this album. In the past decade, Animal Collective may be the only other group to truly explode that line between abstract experimentation and tight pop music effectively through their primal energy. Deerhunter now meets them from the other side of the line, expanding their pop compositions to the point of abstraction.
© September 28th, 2010
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