There’s been some unexpected byproducts of the internet age in music, but perhaps most perplexing among them is how — with all this access to music, and the glut of opinions on it coming out of the woodwork — our insecurities as fans get amplified. Not all that long ago, we didn’t have thousands of blogs and forums around to champion or tear down our tastes. But now, with so much music so easily had, and with so many authoritative voices chiming in to play tastemaker, it’s easy to feel inadequate, even uneducated about music.
Part of this new knowing has leaked into the music itself, and now the independent market is being flooded with bands who know exactly what genres they want to fit into, and our ability to identify those influences is both a badge of honor and a comfort. Deerhunter is just such a band. They’re talented, to be sure, but their popularity in indie circles comes more from this: Deerhunter makes us feel smart. We like Deerhunter because we — a small, clustered-up ‘we’ — know where they came from.
That’s not to say they don’t have a unique sound, but for their first two records — and in particular the breakout Cryptograms — Bradford Cox and company were unwieldy noisemakers. At their best, those songs carved out their own churning niche. However, mostly they let us talk about My Bloody Valentine or Slowdive or even just drop shoegaze into conversation, since to even know the term is to exert some deep-set musical knowledge. Their last full-length, Microcastle saw the band crafting clearer songs. The scuzz was still there, but it was morphing into their scuzz, a sort of pixilated sunburst to off-set all the shiny-sounding kids following Brian Wilson. While it was a progression from the shapeless feel of Cryptograms, which was all visceral reaction, there was still more to study on Microcastle than there was to feel.
All this — where we are as a musical world, and where Deerhunter has been — brings us to their new album, Halcyon Digest, which is in some ways the band’s most accomplished record to date. For the best parts of this record, Deerhunter burst out fully-formed, as a compelling, shape-shifting rock band. Gone are the thick fogs of noise to hide behind, and here is a more organically murky but arresting sound. “Don’t Cry”, the album’s second song, has crunchy but well-defined guitars that chug along while Cox coos out each line with a haunting charm. “You don’t need to cry your eyes out,” he insists, but there’s enough edge in his voice to belie the comfort he’s offering.
The brief pop burst of “Revival” mirrors the tight hooks of “Don’t Cry”, but clears out the mist a bit to let it shine. The true standouts on the record, though, come in the one-two punch of “Memory Boy” and “Desire Lanes”. The former maintains the band’s sense of atmosphere, but runs it through a sun-soaked, and hugely infectious pop song. Even as Cox mourns, “It’s not a house anymore,” the tumbling guitar riff swells in your ears. It’s the most compact, direct, and frankly best song Deerhunter has offered to date. The latter is right behind it, though it stretches out past six minutes. With a thumping insistence, the song surges forward, and the two guitars tangle two beefed-up riffs together to earn the song’s size rather than just amping up the distortion. Here Cox sounds as confident as he ever has on record, his voice full-throated and confident as he bellows the words out.
These moments — and the more off-kilter pop of “Helicopter” — are exciting because, well, the band sounds excited. For Bradford Cox, a guy who is constantly noodling with demos and new experiments, often posting them for download on his blog, much of his final output lacks that sense of discovery. Inherent in his constant creating is the need to always move on, and his songs can feel well worn by the time they get to record. Songs on Halcyon Degest like “Earthquake”, “Basement Scene”, and “We Would Have Laughed” fall into this category. You can see the interesting parts: the way the shimmering acoustic guitar works against the terse beat and grinding atmospherics on “Earthquake”, the clever play on the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do is Dream” on “Basement Scene”, the unruly but striking layers of disparate sound on “We Would Have Laughed”.
However, in the end they sound like tangential curiosities next to the full-blooded songs that surround them. That side of Deerhunter, the one that makes us feel smart, also keeps us at a distance from the emotion in this. I don’t doubt that Bradford Cox feels this music in his bones, but sometimes his carefully built sound comes across to us as a musical dissertation. Much of this record deals with aging, and there’s something compelling about how getting older seems to have given these songs focus and vitality, and pushed away the bits of youthful, self-serious noisemaking. The band’s best moments reflect that growth and urge us to study their eccentricities while letting us react to them emotionally. Still, as Cox puts it on the threadbare ballad “Sailing,” “You can’t take too long making up songs,” and with that mindset, sometimes conveying his feeling gets short shrift. Halcyon Digest is, to my mind, the best we’ve seen from Deerhunter, and a hint that their best is still to come. It’s a fascinating document to study, but I’m not sure that makes it all great music.