On Pitchfork's TV site, you can find a performance of Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox performing as his Atlas Sound solo project. Seated, and with only an acoustic guitar and Bob Dylan-style harmonica holder on, he performs an almost funereal selection of songs inside a church, using a loop pedal and various effects to layer and sculpt the music, a strange mix of 60s folk-rock and psychedelic dream-pop. Watching it for the first time, my initial impression of Atlas Sound's Logos as unfinished and skeletal finally made sense. With an acoustic guitar as the music's locus, this was a major departure from the electric and electronic music Cox had been making for years. In this way, Deerhunter's new album, Halcyon Digest, feels as much like an extension of Logos as it does Deerhunter's Microcastle.
As with indie contemporaries such as TV On The Radio and Animal Collective, Deerhunter have charted a musical development that has taken them from their experimental roots to greater and greater degrees of accessibility and pop songwriting. Microcastle and its 'bonus' album Weird Era Cont. are the obvious jumping off point for Halcyon Digest, since they had an even split between the band's earlier shoegazing/dream pop/noisey side and the modern pop stuff. This new one goes all the way toward the pop stuff, so much so that Deerhunter have finally cleaned away enough of the grit and syrupy psychedelic sounds to qualify as a rock band instead of...well, whatever they were before. They may have actually gone a few steps too far in this direction, unfortunately: Halcyon Digest seems stripped down, plain, and samey sounding, as if the band is working in blacks and whites instead of all the colors of the rainbow. The album does throw a curveball from time to time, though this ends up making it feel uneven and disjointed. Opener 'Earthquake' oozes out of the speakers, a woozy haze of vocals and guitar set to a minimalist drum machine. Guitarist Locke Pundt's 'Desire Lines' spirals out into a three minute guitar solo and reminds me of Murray Street-era Sonic Youth. It and 'Earthquake' could easily have fit unto Microcastle, which is a good and bad thing as I'll eventually get to.
Halcyon Digest is, like Cox's previous music, defined by his ever present nostalgia and remembrances. This time out, these themes surface in the music as much as the lyrics. There's a strong 50s/60s vocal pop/girl group feel to most of these songs, albeit filtered through Deerhunter's aesthetic. Remember how the Pixies almost sounded like a surf rock band on Bossnova? Well, Deerhunter almost sound like a 60s band on Halcyon Digest, right down to having a frontman who primarily plays acoustic guitar. 'Don't Cry', 'Sailing', and 'Basement Scene' pick up where Logos tracks 'Sheila' and 'My Halo' (and Deerhunter's own 'Famous Last Words') left off. Cox's harmonica punctuates the propulsive 'Memory Boy', a fun retro-ist quickie; unfortunately, it shares the same very basic drum beat with nearly every track on Halcyon Digest and makes it have a plain, samey feel. Due to this, from time to time the album actually sounds like Deerhunter turning into or wanting to become a stripped down rock band. Think a more overtly retro Walkmen and you're halfway there—the sax solo and use of piano on 'Coronado' are right out of their playbook. What's more, Cox's sometimes muffled, reedy vocal delivery on Halcyon Digest recalls the guy from the Strokes. Which isn't a good thing, just to be clear.
The reason I didn't fall in love with Halcyon Digest, and I suspect many people won't, is that it lacks the unified atmosphere and consistency of earlier Deerhunter albums and EPs. Before I continue, remember that this is still really good music, and it has some of the band's best songs ever in the euphoric 'Helicopter' and Jay Reatard tribute 'He Would Have Laughed.' However, the latter was recorded by Cox separately and should probably have been an Atlas Sound track, thus demonstrating my final point. Halcyon Digest is like some weird hybrid of a Logos sequel and a Microcastle sequel, and this subsequently reveals the differences between the two projects as well as why Cox has kept them separate. Thus you get basic/stripped down tracks like 'Don't Cry' and 'Fountain Stairs' that are good-but-not-great lumped in with 'Earthquake', 'Desire Lines', and 'Helicopter', which sound like evolutionary but not revolutionary steps from Microcastle. As this is the first time you could genuinely call Deerhunter a rock band and not have to qualify it with genre and sub-genre labels, Halcyon Digest strikes me as a transitional album, one that went too far in one direction and yet not nearly far enough to complete said transition.