Following the breakout success of 2008’s Microcastle and Weird Era Cont., the Atlanta-based foursome Deerhunter’s fourth effort, Halcyon Digest, takes no drastic shifts in direction but nonetheless delivers concise, sharply-written new material from a band mastering its niche in the indie music canon. The band continues to dabble in a wide range of hazy, punk-leaning art pop that tastefully eludes classification at no expense to its inherent accessibility.
Less confrontational than Microcastle and hardly as innovative as Cryptograms, Halcyon Digest masks its visceral attack in a fog of dream-flavored soundscapes that often play out like a weary reflection of themselves. Throughout the album, songs deal with the tension between lyrical intensity and sonic experimentation with a sense of apathy that will either crawl under your skin or leave you painfully unfulfilled.
Bradford Cox, Deerhunter’s cheerfully enigmatic, unassumingly talented frontman and primary songwriter, possesses an ear for quietly affecting melodies that almost always avoid the often theatrical pretensions of his indie contemporaries. In both Deerhunter and his solo side project, Atlas Sound, Cox’s fragile, 60’s-tempered tenor engenders a habitually bleak and uncertain ambiance that doesn’t eschew enough hope to be called shoegaze but cannot harness enough of a ruckus to be labeled noise. A high school dropout, self-affirmed asexual recluse, and indie icon, Cox approaches songwriting with a childish sense of brutal honesty that never feels excessive. What remains is a brand of frighteningly modest pastoral psychedelia, informed but never overwhelmed by the capacities of the electric guitar.
On album opener “Earthquake,” a wiry and awkward drum machine alludes to the stripped-down pretenses of lo-fi for ten seconds before an ethereal guitar floats overhead, albeit several hundred miles away. Cox’s voice, obscured just enough to cloud out every third word he sings, timidly creeps into the mix. He drifts in and out, singing something about “waking up” and “walking down the street,” but his voice never once overshadows the increasingly foggy soundscape. The beat claps more ferociously, shimmers of distortion sail into eternity, and somewhere in the distance, a ukulele underlines it all with barely coherent innocence.
“Don’t Cry” emerges from the uncertainty with a fairly straightforward, fuzzy riff only lasting long enough for Cox to question “why oh why” so many times before the song runs out of breath and collapses into quiet decay. On “Revival,” a whirly piano coupled with the sparkle of a distant mandolin echoes just the right sparkles of Rubber Soul and Village Green in what may prove Deerhunter’s most accessible track.
Next, the wistful “Sailing” finds Cox crooning to himself with just a guitar and lone tambourine as hums of distortion belie any feeling of calm. The song drags along for an exhausting five minutes, but given the album’s propensity for intentionally ebbing and flowing at all the wrong times, the pacing feels frustratingly perfect. As expected, “Memory Boy” bursts out of the ennui with resiliently poppy glimmers of accordion and harmonica before promptly ending just over the two minute mark — somewhere out there Cox is having a laugh at how short-lived he can make his most effective compositions.
However, it is not Cox but guitarist Lockett Pundt at the reins of the album’s breakout track, “Desire Lines.” “Lifts you up and turns you round / Whatever goes up, must come down,” sings Cox amid the rising and falling of angelic voices as an airy, plucked guitar line gradually succumbs to the relentless drive of a thumping bass. Like Microcastle’s “Nothing Ever Happened” before it, the heights of its soaring, albeit ephemeral chorus give way to a nearly four minute wordless coda of spinning guitars that never quite seem to quiet.
The stunningly bare “Basement Scene” finds Cox in his most vulnerable state of reverie. As his surprisingly undistorted voice innocently cries about never wanting to get old, his helplessness is tragically compounded by the fact that he feels farther away from us than he has ever been.
Overall, Halcyon Digest expands on the sound Deerhunter developed on Microcastle and Cryptograms by drifting in and out of familiar territory with often disorienting but always gripping results. Whether it’s the idyllic lament of the gorgeous “Helicopter” or the haphazard barrage of looping acoustic guitars and bumbling percussion in “He Would Have Laughed,” these songs pay tribute to their influences just enough to keep an eye on the future. While Halcyon Digest may wane unexpectedly in ways that will undoubtedly alienate listeners, no one can deny that Cox and company have mastered their craft.