In days where far too many people follow fashion, Deerhunter have made a career of pushing forward on their own unique trajectory; embracing ambient punk on the droning ‘Cryptograms’, welcoming in pop melodies and krautrock for ‘Microcastle’, exploring DIY and collage on ‘Weird Era Cont.’ and constructing more upbeat pop structures on last year’s ‘Rainwater Cassette Exchange’ EP. Bradford Cox’s band have now taken a bizarre step sideways and broken through the fourth wall of music making – throughout much of ‘Halcyon Digest’, Deerhunter sound more like Cox’s side project Atlas Sound than themselves.

Cox’s solo project has turned out some masterpieces, not least last year’s ‘Logos’ album, and its more electronic, dreamy influence at first seems to have worked its wonders on ‘Halcyon Digest’. The opener ‘Earthquake’ is a snail’s-pace, crystalline creation, Cox intoning over backwards drums and echoing acoustic guitar, “Do you recall waking up on a dirty couch in the grey fog/and the grey dog barking down the street?” So far so good. ‘Helicopter’ also displays Atlas Sound influences. An electronics-tinged track with a lot less guitar than in recent live airings, its words are complemented in the lyrics sheets by a horrific (true?) Dennis Cooper story about an abused Russian male prostitute and pornographic performer – true to Cox’s obsessions with the dark and seedy side of life, ‘Dima’ is sold into sex slavery and dies, although it’s not clear whether he commits suicide or is thrown out of a helicopter over a remote Russian forest by gangsters.

These songs are shining successes of their new approach but, elsewhere, tracks like ‘Sailing’, deathly slow and almost bland, are signs Deerhunter would be best served by higher tempos and more structured songwriting. The smoky, tape-echoing ‘Basement Scene’ makes a virtue of its shuffling rhythm, but ‘Coronado’ does little over a minimal chord sequence and cheesy saxophone. It’s telling that first single ‘Revival’, a two-minute guitar-led pop song (with a proper chorus an’ everything!), is by far the most immediate and also long-term rewarding song on the album.

Maybe Cox is feeling the limitations of recording with a four-piece group and, after years of boundless inspiration, needs a bit of recuperation to get his creative juices flowing properly again. After all, the most classic-sounding Deerhunter track on the album, ‘Desire Lines’, is written and sung by guitarist Lockett Pundt rather than Cox – along with the final chorus of ‘Revival’, the song’s end, a ‘Nothing Ever Happened’-style crescendo of interlocking guitar lines and metronomic drums, is one of the highlights of the album.

Not to say that ‘Halcyon Digest’ is a bad album – there are at least five fantastic songs on here that would rival anyone’s released this year – but it’s not in the same league as their other releases over the last four years or so; hardly surprising, considering the quality of the canon they’re competing with. Of course, that’s also not to say that bands should continue ploughing the same furrow, remaking their most popular songs again and again, and Deerhunter should be applauded for once more changing their style – and on songs like ‘Earthquake’ and ‘Helicopter’ it works a treat. It’s just a shame that on around half of ‘Halcyon Digest’ they’ve replaced the Deerhunter ‘sound’ with something less inspired.

By Tom Pinnock

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