Sunday, 26 September 2010
Deerhunter-Halcyon Digest review
It felt like the steps Deerhunter took before this album was even heard was them consciously stepping further and an attempt at reaching a wider audience: The move solely to 4AD, a seemingly more honed and professional live show and hiring Ben Allen of "Merriweather Post Pavillion" fame to produce and mix the record. If there was any time that Deerhunter should step from proper underground heroes to Grizzly Bear/Animal Collective-style success and position, this seemed to be it. But anyone who knows the back story of Deerhunter knows that it is never that simple with them. For many people, Deerhunter produces music that doesn't seem to have been thought about much, and that is meant in the best possible way; it rides and breathes on pure fucking emotion and spontaneity, and I would argue that this is what makes them great. Far greater in fact, than possibly any other band on Earth since their second record."Cryptograms" came out in early 2007.
Which makes "Halcyon Digest" even more of a disappointment for me and no doubt many other fervent supporters of the band. Not for the first time, Deerhunter seem confused. Previously, confusion was a subject casting a heavy shadow over the feel of their music and lyrics, a particular existential and newly-adult confusion, a dread even. But this time, it is actually the album itself which feels confused. "Halcyon Digest" sees a band wanting to move forward (like any good band should) but struggling to find its own voice and identity.
Unlike what many have predicted, this is not Deerhunter's "Big pop moment" or their breakthrough opportunity. The weirdness of previous releases has definitely been toned down for the most part, but this is not replaced by amazing hooks and catchy chorus', rather instead in the main pretty bland songs that just don't really do much at all, and don't seem to know how to. First single "Revival" begins with a great piano line that easily gets lodged in the brain, but the vocal melody throughout never takes off, and the band isn't doing anything even vaguely interesting to counteract to solve this pedestrian song. It ends with you feeling extremely unsatisfied. Ditto songs such as "Memory Boy" and "Basement Scene", the former featuring a nasty modern anthemc indie rock not unlike Arcade Fire, the latter featuring a great intro of swirling guitars that sounds like it was recorded in said basement, but which then switches to B-side Everly Brothers.territory and does that "Halcyon Digest" trick of not really doing much. The same can be said of most of the other songs, especially "Don't Cry". Supposed "centrepiece" of the album "Desire Lines" is exactly the same in its mediocrity, only much longer and featuring a just as boring lengthy instrumental section, which just really is not needed. You get the impression that the Band wanted to produce another "epic" in the form of say "Cavalry Scars " or "Nothing Ever Happened", but it just comes out feeling extremely forced.
Bradford Cox is still centred on his thoughts of before, stating "I don't want to get old" on "Basement Scene", a theme he has already touched on many times before. "Don't Cry" and "Helicopter" seem almost Deerhunter caricaturing themselves on each songs subject matter. But the main reason this record seems so severely lacking is the pure and simple fact that the songs just arn't up to much. And it even seems that the band realises this themselves. A lot of songs are extremely short, the shortest even feeling like pulled punches. Saxophone is added to "Fountain Stairs" and "Coronado", but rather than adding to the songs it just makes you feel like they are trying to cover up their songs lack of inspiration.
This is such a shame though, because "Halcyon Digest" also sees them branching out and developing in the right direction as well. Opener "Earthquake" sounds like nothing ever, before or since, with its creaky door-sounding drums and almost synth-like washes of sound. It somehow is able to sound both majestic and eerie at the same time. "Helicopter" is probably the most beautiful and inspired pop song of this year, and actually does not sound of this world. "Fountain Stairs" shows Lockett Pundt's vocals greatly improving since we last hear them on "Microcastle", sounding clear and magnificent. The band also hit a groove on that track which is golden, but the song isn't strong enough to carry it all the way through and ends not knowing what to do with itself. You will notice that is the first that has been written of the "Band" because this does not feel like a band record at all, and there is hardly any trace of Josh or Moses' influence on the record. It pretty much feels like a Bradford Cox solo record. "He would have laughed" sounds like it could have nearly been on Cox's "Logos" record, but is noway as inspired or just downright good enough to be on that record. It also feels mighty lost, not really knowing what to do with itself and just meanders aimlessly. Cox has always talked of trying to keep his Atlas Sound project separate from Deerhunter, but on this record it sees the two blurring into one.
At the end of the day though, the sheer painful truth of "Halcyon Digest" is that its just a boring, pedestrian album. There's no getting away from it. Many have talked of the "Fluorescent Grey" and "Rainwater Cassette Exchange" e.p.'s being transitional records, but this feels like the truly transitional Deerhunter record. Cox once said he wanted to be more than just another Indie Rock band, but on this record that is precisely what Deerhunter has become: a bland, middle-of-the-road Indie Rock band. I just hope this isn't the beginning of the end for them creatively.