Deerhunter transitions into a new sound

Deerhunter performs this past May at the Primavera Sound in Barcelona.  (credit: Courtesy of Quique López on flickr) Deerhunter performs this past May at the Primavera Sound in Barcelona. (credit: Courtesy of Quique López on flickr)

Bradford Cox has been a very busy man, releasing six LPs worth of material in around four years. His latest creation sees his return to the band Deerhunter for the group’s fourth LP. Halcyon Digest seems to compete with their previous best, Microcastle, in more ways than one, as the album marks a transition in Deerhunter’s sound away from the talented Cox’s control. Sure, Cox’s presence is nearly everywhere on the album, but Deerhunter should no longer be considered a solo effort. Guitarist Lockett Pundt, bassist Josh Fauver, and drummer Moses Archuleta have subdued the signature Cox sound, making this album mostly pop. Deerhunter has grown from a group under Cox’s control into a band that can utilize his reverb and atmospheric ambience in an album that is both easy on the ears and complex after multiple listens.

This isn’t your older brother’s Deerhunter — this is a band that could be played on the radio, and right away. While the band has often hinted at these pop sensibilities — the song “Agrophobia” in particular — the musicians have never expanded from this line into a full-blown pop track. Interestingly enough, the band recently toured with Spoon, a band that also transformed into a more mainstream sound after a few releases, perhaps indicating that Halcyon Digest might be the album that earns Deerhunter extensive radio time. “Coronado” seems like the perfect transitional single, as it is a track that could easily be played on any radio broadcast. It has a stomping beat, a roaring saxophone, driving guitar rhythms, and vocals that sound more like Julian Casablanca’s from The Strokes.

While the album is more straightforward than previous releases, Halcyon Digest doesn’t desert previous Deerhunter loyalists. The lonesome “Sailing” is the most notably atmospheric track. Drummer Archuleta is absent, leaving the raw, atmospheric sound of previous albums to shine. On the track, synths swoosh and guitars noodle while Cox’s raw voice evokes a sense of pure loneliness. Cox tells us: “Only fear can make you feel lonely out here / You learn to accept / Whatever you can get.”

“Sailing” would probably be the crown jewel of previous Deerhunter albums with its lovely, sparse, and pure emotion. It intentionally languishes and sprawls for five minutes. The track hangs listeners on an emotional peak, giving them an insight into the mire of loneliness contained in sailing by oneself. Close your eyes while listening and you could be there. Near its end, Cox croons away his loneliness as synths slowly overtake his beautiful voice. You are that sailor sitting in a boat on a trip towards nowhere in particular. During the closing seconds of “Sailing,” you think you’ve hit the peak of the album — but, surprisingly enough, you haven’t.

Halcyon Digest reaches its peak during “Desire Lines,” one of the two songs written by Pundt. Most of the previous atmospheric performance is thrown aside for a song that features a new direction. Archuleta lays down a consistent stomp, and bassist Fauver mixes in a very high, smooth bass line. The track is most notable for its placement and length: Smack-dab in the middle of the track list and the second-longest song on the album, this song stands out. Written by Pundt, “Desire Lines” does not have Cox’s influence completely altering and shaping the song into his typical glossy, poppy sound. Listeners are able to focus completely on the beating drums, thumping bass, jamming guitar, and soothing vocals.

“Desire Lines” is the future of Deerhunter. It evolves the band from a Cox-centric universe into something that features the best elements of each of its members. His electronic tinkering combines with Pundt’s textured strumming to form a more cohesive Deerhunter, capable of altering the groups sound and evolving past their signature resonance.

While “Desire Lines” might indicate the future direction of Deerhunter, Halcyon Digest still has Cox’s fingerprints all over it. The lead single, “Helicopter,” is one of Cox’s best. It features a beautiful electronic chopping sample, as layers upon layers of guitar strums coat over the song and blend in with Cox’s croon. In “Helicopter,” Cox has mastered disguising his voice within the background texture of the song. It’s striking just how beautifully his voice floats in and out of the track — both begging for attention and attempting to hide itself in a complex wall of sound.

Last comes the epic “He Would Have Laughed,” a tribute to the recently deceased American garage-rock musician Jay Reatard. Much like “Desire Lines,” the track features the input of the entire band. Archuleta’s piercing drumming is the highlight of the first half of the track, and Pundt plucks gorgeous staccatos during Cox’s verses. The track breaks down between choruses, perhaps as a metaphor for Reatard’s troubled life. The latter half of the song sees Cox asking, “Where did my friends go? Where did my friends go?” While he doesn’t get an answer, the tribute remains a touching monument to Reatard and a memorable end to an incredible album.

Halcyon Digest is one of the best albums of 2010. It contains fewer awkward moments and more polish than all of Deerhunter’s previous albums. It also signifies a dynamic shift away from Cox’s obsessive touch and towards a more cohesive group-based sound. Although it was not the worst thing that could happen to the band, Deerhunter was resistant to change when mired in Cox’s sound. Now, Deerhunter is an interconnected group rather than an extension of Cox, and from the feel of Halcyon Digest, this appears to be a good thing.