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Deerhunter
Halycon Digest Kev Kharas , October 14th, 2010 05:09

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The first thing that strikes you about Halcyon Digest is how comfortable it is, both in terms of its sound and Bradford Cox’s lyrics. After five studio albums, a pair of EPs and countless free blog dabs—not to his mention his solo work as Atlas Sound—the Deerhunter frontman wakes up on opener ‘Earthquake’ in familiarly lush and spectral surrounds, seemingly in the process of eradicating the last traces of paranoia from his psyche.

Beginning in the stark swipe and clank of messed with electronic percussion, the track quickly stretches out into vast, twinkling guitar pedal yawns like the orbits of intergalactic penny-farthing wheels. We seem to be stood at the verge of some great shift. Or perhaps beyond it? “Do you recall,” asks Cox, sleepily, “waking up on a dirty couch in the grey fog, and the grey dog barking down the street?” As synths begin to woosh and cymbals clamour, the feeling is that the loneliness and silence of that scenario are gone, now. The moment's merely ‘recalled’, and as such the chances of experiencing it again in any direct way are nil.

Recollection bullies Halcyon Digest. Cox has explained that the title references "the way that we write and rewrite and edit our memories to be a digest version of what we want to remember, and how that’s kind of sad”. As such, Cox would probably explain away the lack of any neuroses here by pointing to memories altered until they’re able to sit in the brain without causing too much hassle for their hosts. Unfortunately for him, that smoothing of past pain seems to have resulted in a blunting of Deerhunter’s bite — there’s barely a sound or a twist on Deerhunter’s ‘new’ album you’ll not have heard from the band before.

‘Don’t Cry’’s guitars have that not-punk-tough-but-tough-enough valve amp fume Deerhunter have always loved so much, while ‘Revival’’s shuffling rhythms bring to mind the twilit waltzes and empty school hall struts Cox has ridden so often these last few years. But where, on Microcastle’s ‘Neither Of Us, Uncertainly’ and Rainwater Cassette Exchange’s title track, Cox was found “feeling alone” or mired in “two weeks of misery”, here he’s rejoicing. “I am saved!” the opening line announces, as merry guitars prance and peel beneath vocals recorded at familiar lisped, clever-dumb remove. ‘Sailing’ is one of those tracks that finds Cox stretching baleful vocals over a flotsam of tired guitar notes (see Microcastle’s ‘Microcastle’, first half) and the aptly named ‘Memory Boy’ is a rehash of concerns about houses and the autumn that jar softly with splays of triumphant, trebly lead line. ‘Fountain Stairs’ is so ‘by numbers’, my iTunes play count suggests I had to hear it ten times before I realised it existed.

This isn’t to say it’s all bad, because it’s not—had Halcyon Digest arrived earlier in Deerhunter’s career, or had it been the work of another band entirely, you’d find it lauded. But even this record’s highlights feel kind of familiar: as with any Deerhunter album, there are a handful of great songs amid what, for a band capable of such dazzling moments, constitutes filler. The first of those great songs is the aforementioned ‘Revival’, while the second arrives in the chiming psych-swirls and ghost-chorus melodies guitarist Lockett Pundt seems to have coaxed in from the ether for 'Desire Lines'. Ending pair ‘Coronado’ and ‘He Would Have Laughed' are good, too, the former's saxophone blasts at least offering new textures, the latter a dreamy tribute to Cox’s fallen friend Jay Reatard that towards the end of its seven and a half minutes finally tapers up into atmospheres unknown (at which point the album ends).

The finest track here by some distance, though, is ‘Helicopter’. Halcyon's centre-piece is among the best this band have ever produced, though in keeping with a record bereft of moments to get the blood up, it has more in common with Atlas Sound's ‘Walkabout’ than it does ‘Adorno’, ‘VHS Dream’, ‘Hazel St’, ‘Wash Off’ or ‘Nothing Ever Happened’. Through Languid splashes of guitar and Cox's declarative, showtune delivery, Deerhunter imagine the last moments of Dimitry 'Dima' Marakov, who sought escape from his home in Nalchik, Russia into the fashion world he'd developed an early obsession with. The story, told at American writer Dennis Cooper's website, tells how at 14 Dima moved to St. Petersburg to live with a fashion photographer he'd met on the internet. Dima soon found his poor hide working for gay porn sites, but saved his earnings with the intention of attending fashion college. There are two variations on the nature of his demise—either he was courted by a Russian crimelord who sold and drugged him into sex slavery before tossing him out of a helicopter over remote forestland in north Russia, or he was sold into sex slavery by the photographer from St. Petersburg and committed suicide in the Ukraine in 2006.

In his lyrics, Cox opts for the more spectacular option, singing from the perspective of a Dima waiting to be thrown from a flying vehicle. It's one of the rare moments on the record that Deerhunter really seem to break through their fug of wistful complacency, and it's telling that it takes such an extreme story to goad such a moment from them. The result is beautiful, mainly for its sense of trespass—does Cox feel he can identify in some way with Marakov's plight? Has the process of rewriting and reediting his own memories led him to transpose himself into those of another? Memory is a tricky thing to deal with. Others have done it better—by my count, those gathered around Brooklyn's Olde English Spelling Bee label have this year been responsible for at least four such records that blow this one out of the water (Rangers' Suburban Tours, Forest Swords' Dagger Paths, Matrix Metals' Flamingo Breeze, Oneohtrix Point Never's Returnal longplayer for Editions Mego). Others, such as Actress (Splazsh) and Teengirl Fantasy (7AM), have also navigated the contours of altered memory of late, but Halcyon Digest only occasionally inhabits zones as magical or enlightening. It's a record that feels more like a resolution than an exploration: a settling for contentment, the sound of a band dozing happily in a comfort zone.

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Michael
Dec 14, 2010 7:16am

Thankfully i never cared for deerhunter until this record. I love this album. I really love Helicopter. Sorry but your four 'water blowing' choices (and yes I know 3 of them) do not in any way compare to the single of the year that Helicopter is (imo). But I've lived through pain, redemption and Cocteau Twins unlike you, maybe? Personally, Helicopter, is the best single in 3-5 years.

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