Halcyon Digest will be the album to propel Deerhunter from their position as interesting indie outsiders into the front line of progressive, experimental pop music. Possibly. Halcyon Digest is a good album, very good in fact. But if making good music alone were enough to win popular acclaim, Bradford Cox, Lockett Pundt & co. would have achieved it many times over in the last few years. The band has been remarkably prolific and astoundingly consistent. Including Cox and Pudnt’s solo projects (Atlas Sound and Lotus Plaza respectively), the band have released a staggering seven albums (and two EPs) since 2005, each one of them exploring a different musical terrain, each one of them wonderful in its own right. So perhaps wider recognition will again remain elusive to the American four-piece.
Actually, this is probably how Deerhunter like it. The rate at which the band has evolved has not lent itself well to satisfying a wide-ranging fan base. Even the band themselves have been keen to disassociate themselves from their early material. When asked about their first LP, Turn it Up, Faggot (named after a particularly memorable slice of abuse they were served up at an early gig), Cox has gone as far to say that it “sucks” and they now find it “embarrassing”. Their follow up effort, Cryptograms, was unrecognisable: a fusion of murky, distorted guitar swell to a climax of psychedelic dream-pop. They then reinvented themselves again with the up-beat, poppier Microcastle, which included a 40 minute, reverb-drenched bonus disc (Weird Era Cont). So it should come as no surprise that, Halcyon Digest also breaks new ground, and bares little resemblance to their previous full-length efforts.
The distorted guitars and hypnotic vocal lines, which have been so characteristic of their music to date, are largely absent. They have been peeled away, and the happy result is that a new set of strengths reveal themselves. Cox and Pundt’s imaginative lyricism, the sensitivity of their song-writing, and the range of their soundscape are all allowed to flourish on Halcyon Digest. Revival is a clean and conventional pop song, but lit up by a jangly guitar lick and given depth by spiritual ponderings, “Would you believe it/ All of the day/ I felt his presence near me.” Basement Scene is a throw back to the minimalism of Cryptograms, and a love song to their days of small-scale gigging, “Dream a little dream, all about the basement scene/ I don’t wanna wake up.” The introverted reflections of Cox are counter-balanced well by Pundt’s quicker, guitar driven anthems. With its elegant riff and catchy chorus, Desire Lines might, in fact, be the best track on the record.
Coronado, like the Spanish explorer it’s named after, ventures into unfamiliar territory. Shockingly, it utilises a saxophone as its focal point: unimaginable on any of their previous outings. The album culminates with He Would Have Laughed; a seven minute tribute to recently departed punk rocker (and personal friend of the band) Jay Reatard. The guitar riff is brilliant in its simplicity, and works perfectly as a foil to Cox’s sorrowful ruminations, asking mournfully “Where do your friends go?” True to its subject, the song ends suddenly, unexpectedly, prematurely.
Halcyon Digest is Deerhunter’s maturest work to date. It defies labels such as dream-pop or ambient-punk, and operates within a more conventional form and structure. It may not have the hooks and thrills of Microcastle, but it more than compensates in variety and sheer depth: it rewards with every new listen. Where the band go from here is anybody’s guess.