Album Review

Halcyon Digest

Halcyon Digest

by Deerhunter


4AD
8.9 / 10
27th October 2010

Reviewed by Paul Gallagher


Bradford Cox is a man often thought of as fragile, dejectedly tragic and utterly frustrated by the perceived injustices of life. His are sad, morbid and mournful songs - crafted with dirge-like respect for situations that he himself has experienced in marking a part of his personal struggle, or tales that have gripped him to the point of tragedy where he's compelled to share them with Deerhunter's growing legions of followers.

Described by some as a joyful album of aural discovery, for me Halcyon Digest is instead overflowing with morose nuance and a weighted gloom. While there's an obvious expansive soundscape created by an ever-growing list of experimentation and musicianship, as with many of Deerhunter's past releases this album billows with the lace of tragedy. But while this take may sound familiar to those who're more accustomed to the heaviness of the now-vast back catalog of Deerhunter / Atlas Sound releases, with the sadness on this album it's more about Cox's fascination with hindsight, regret and other peoples' experience than his own. And it's expressed in the depths of percussion, fazed electronic tones, and even sprawled jaunts of brass not seen before on past releases. 

Aesthetically, there's not much change or evolution to get excited by. Cox continues his obsession with past-pop inflections, carrying with his song-writing the obligation to hoist a flag of remembrance for musicians gone, eras dissolved into haze of memories and notions rather than realities of culture. Here and there are smatterings of classic hits, from the 60s 70s 80s 90s and today - nods to the likes of the Everly Brothers in the track 'Basement Scene', or a marking of the glory of 90s dawn pop be it seemingly Magnetic Fields or Beat Happening influenced in 'He Would Have Laughed', or even the shimmer gauze of the superb 'Desire Lines' which harks back to the best of 90s subliminal shoegaze yawn.

Just as Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart has over time become anthemic for young people who've suffered abuse or discrimination for their sexuality, Bradford Cox has also taken on a role of counsel and social conscience. One of the the stand out tracks 'Helicopter' for instance catalogs the short life of a young gay Russian named Dima who entered prostitution and porn at a young age, living a life of abuse and exploitation as a piece of sex-slave meat for a shady figure within the depths of the largess of organized crime in Eastern Europe. And while Dima's fate has never been recorded, there's stories and myths that have taken shape - including one which described him being pushed out of a helicopter, high above the forest-covered steppe in the remote reaches of northern Russia. It's an incredible context for a song, one which cannot begin to leave you as you're suddenly haunted by every line, steeped in tragedy and utter sadness, as Cox delicately sings the line 'now they are through with me.'

'Revival' smacks of empowerment, of self belief. But you can't quite help that when there's a sense that Cox is singing about what might one day be, almost in a cynical way, about how things could turn out in the future - that self-satisfaction might come about if something, anything, everything was just. There's yearning there, a want for something that could be in sight but may not be in arms reach. It's a part of what makes Cox one of the more compelling figures in the indie music scene these days - completely open and confronting his romantic neurosis with his craft. 

Just as the track 'Agoraphobia' on Microcastles spoke volumes about the imposition of personal restrictions that we sometimes find ourselves in, Halcyon Digest creates a litany of observations of spatiality - not in the physical sense, but that of the mind. It's an album about the creation of memories, of perception, the occupation of dreams and the pre-occupation with thoughts that sometimes drags us down into an eerily macabre sense of nostalgia, living in a space where we prefer an alternate reality to the one in which we're actually in. It's the avoidance of reality in which the sadness lies. But as miserable as it might seem, in many ways that avoidance acts as a defence mechanism and a chance to steel oneself against difficulties. 

Deerhunter's music is unique in the way that it so often feels so completely fresh, despite the heavy reliance it places on paying homage to the past. Halcyon Digest tackles the task of carrying a torch out of the vague notions of conformity still seen these days despite the flood of genres and sub-genres and sub-genre dialectics that exist within relatively small communities of musicians. Halcyon Digest again finds Deerhunter leading the way as a band. It's utterly accessible, utterly earnest and utterly open - it voids the need for regulating commentary, standing alone and embracing all, looking forward while acknowledging the past. Sure, there's still the glum elements for which Cox and company have always suffered their tormentors, but at least it's completely honest in the way that it attempts to justify continued effort against the struggles that life throws up. 






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