Atlas Sound: Parallax

Atlas Sound

So what if it’s only 2011. I think it’s already safe to say that when we start talking about the best music of this decade eight years from now, we’ll have quite a bit to say about Bradford Cox. Over the last couple of years, through his work with his main outfit Deerhunter and his solo project Atlas Sound, the hyper-prolific Cox has emerged as an endlessly fascinating, risk-taking musician who continues to evolve at a frightening pace. Cox may have begun his career as a noise-rock provocateur, but he’s been marching toward the light at a steady clip, stripping away the abrasive squall of early releases for a more listener-friendly sound. While the restless Cox continues to exceed expectations with every new release, he set the bar particularly high with the otherworldly eargasm that was Halcyon Digest, the crown jewel in the Deerhunter catalogue and this reviewer’s pick for the best album of 2010.

Speaking of other worlds, when Cox announced the release of Parallax, his third official album under the Atlas Sound moniker, he genre-defined the album as “Science Fiction”. While those who show up expecting to hear Cox spin tales of time travel and future civilizations will be disappointed, the astounding Parallax will completely shatter the perception of Atlas Sound as a dumping ground for Cox’s not-ready-for-prime-time material. Without sacrificing the wisps of billowing noise or the trademark watery effects, Cox has composed his most accessible set of songs to date and offered further proof as to why he’s one of the most important songwriters working today.

The artwork really says it all. Instead of appearing on the cover of the album as he usually does with his face distorted or bleached out by a blinding light, Cox had legendary photographer Mick Rock shoot him looking all debonair, holding a vintage microphone. This striking image suggests that Cox is done lurking in the shadows, at least for the time being. If Cox was too introverted on Let the Blind Lead Those Who See But Cannot Feel and too reliant on high-profile cameos on Logos, he’s finally willing to put himself on full display on Parallax, eccentricities and all. He’s a gracious host, offering us unprecedented access to the very unique, often disturbing universe he occupies.

Cox opens the album the album with a quick lesson in indie rock 101. With its frostbitten guitars and unhinged drumming, “The Shakes” tumbles forward like early DGC-era Sonic Youth, while the dreamy yet tension-filled “Amplifiers” sounds like Deerhunter being forced to play at a lower volume. It’s after these two earthen tracks that strange things start happening. “Te Amo”, with its looped piano arpeggios, sounds like familiar territory until Cox starts singing. He doesn’t just sing, mind you, he croons — delivering lines “Te Amo / I’ll pretend you were the only one” like some ’50s lounge singer playing to a table full of beauties, one hand outstretched and the other on his heart. This is merely the beginning of Major Cox’s journey through inner space.

On Halcyon Digest‘s standout track “Helicopter”, Cox made a song about a murdered prostitute sound positively triumphant. While his subject matter is far less specific on this go around, Cox continues this trend, infusing even the most despairing songs with an undeniable warm glow. Love, religion, and ancient galaxies are all common themes here, yet Cox doesn’t pretend to know any more about these topics than the rest of us. It often sounds like we’re hearing someone pondering life’s great mysteries in real time and the effect is spellbinding. On tracks like the slinky “Modern Aquatic Nightsongs” and the almost unbearably tense “Doldrums”, Cox sings of nausea-inducing love, terrible addictions, and Christ forsaken boys in a soothing whisper, holding our hands as we follow him through the darkness. The jittery title track sounds like the theme song for a Spaghetti Western set on Mars, while the gorgeously haunted “Terra Incognita” features a stunning coda that finds Cox’s disembodied voice floating up into the unknown and then back down again.

In the past, all of the bleeps and bloops and short-wave radio static that cluttered up Cox’s songs had the tendency to distract. That’s no longer the case. Here, every whisper, echoey effect, cymbal brush, and woodblock strike, is precisely positioned and absolutely essential to the arrangement. The preternaturally talented never have it easy, but on this album, Cox seems to have complete faith in himself. If Cox wants to end the acoustic freak-folk epic “Falstaff” with two minutes of gurgling amorphous noise, who are we to question him?

The wobbly stretches are wisely broken up by several bursts of blissed out power pop. The vaguely alt-countryish “Mona Lisa”, with its honky-tonk piano lying low in the mix and its insidiously catchy chorus, would top the charts in a different era. It’s far and away the most straightforward pop song Cox has written to date. One hopes that someday Cox will bring his fascination with ’50s singing groups full circle and start one of his own — complete with a string section, back-up singers, and matching outfits. Until that day, we have the yearning, highly infectious “My Angel Is Broken”, where Cox coos and croons like Elvis Presley.

At the end of the tunnel, there’s the unabashedly optimistic “Nightworks”, a sequel of sorts to the Halcyon track “Coronado” that substitutes harmonica for saxophone, “Nightworks” finds Cox reaching higher ground after his trippy journey through his own subconscious. The fever dreams have ended and Cox is left to exultantly declare that “Everywhere I look there is a light / There is no pain.” It’s a fitting conclusion to a near perfect album that finds an artist expanding his musical palate without sacrificing an ounce of himself in the process.

RATING 9 / 10