Bradford Cox has always reminded me of Bean, that tiny, brainy kid from Orson Scott Card’s _Ender’s Game_ book series. For the non-nerds among you, Bean is the smartest, and smallest, of a group of preadolescents who are trying to take over a futuristic version of our universe. Somewhere in the series, he discovers that his genetic code was altered before he was born; he’s destined to hit a massive growth spurt in his teens, then die as a giant before the age of twenty. Bean is plucky and brilliant—but mostly, in my mind, he’s long-limbed and tragic. And there you have Bradford Cox.
It’s not that Cox—who has severely elongated limbs as a result of a genetic disorder called Marfan syndrome—is going to die anytime soon. I’ve just always felt a sense of dislocation in his work. Bradford, like Bean, is defiantly (N.B.: I don’t mean “definitely”) not like the rest of us. He’s looking at the world from a different vantage point, and his work (with both Deerhunter and his solo project, Atlas Sound) reflects that: there’s a lot of ambiance in your typical Cox record, a sense of gauzy confusion, and a detachment from everyday life. It’s not always sad, per se, but it’s different.
_Halcyon Digest_, Deerhunter’s fourth full-length album, has to carry all of that baggage, and at first it sags under the weight. Album opener “Earthquake,” for example, is equal parts impressionistic lyric (referenced within the first sentence are: memories, a dirty couch, and gray fog) and shimmery underwater effect. Cox’s voice drifts just between Lockett Pundt’s guitar and Josh Fauver’s bass, and you get the sense that he’s struggling to break through to the song’s surface. It’s a very good track, but it’s also par for the course with Deerhunter. There’s nothing particularly new here.
If you like Deerhunter’s previous work, though, that’s great news. Even better: the rest of the album only builds on that vibe. The first few songs are all classic Deerhunter: dreamy and haunting, even when they’re upbeat. Sonically, this is music for early fall; for the first day you put on a jacket and hug it around yourself, when the world seems a little crisper and a little lonelier all at once. Cox’s lyrics tackle that exact feeling, over and over. In “Don’t Cry,” he tries to calm a lonely little boy; in “Sailing,” he tells us that “only fear / can make you feel lonely out here. / You learn to accept / whatever you can get.” You get the sense that Cox has been working through this sense of isolation for a long time, and that he’s nowhere near finishing.
Instead of collapsing entirely inward, though, from this point on _Halcyon Digest_ begins to open outward. “Memory Boy” might be the closest Deerhunter have come to recording a pure pop song: it’s all jangly, R.E.M.-style hooks and clear, plaintive vocals. There are more pop echoes, intentional or not, as the album goes on. It’s easy to make a Beach Boys comparison on the chorus of “Desire Lines” (though it sounds even more like Grizzly Bear’s intricate chamber-pop), or to hear undertones of Thom Yorke in the drifting vocals on “Basement Scene.” More importantly, it actually sounds like the band is broadening their sound. There’s some new instrumentation—most appreciably, a saxophone on “Coronado”—and Cox’s voice is placed much higher in the mix, so it finally sounds like he’s singing to an audience, not himself. He’s going for a different type of introspection, here, almost approaching extroversion: as melancholy as ever, but also searching for genuine connection.
The weird effect of all this is that _Halcyon Digest_ does two contradictory things at once: It sounds exactly like a Deerhunter album while also sounding very different. That’s a difficult feat, but, again, it’s not that unusual for this band. Working through the last three or four Deerhunter releases, I was struck most by the sense of consistency throughout. Each of their albums has sparks of fresh ideas, but you don’t get the sense that they’re attached to a particular moment in time. They’re just strange, and interesting, and good.
That brings me back to Bean. His character lives with a different sense of time than the rest of us; it’s accelerated, but also slowed down. He exists outside of traditional notions of linear time and development. Without belaboring the comparison, you could argue that Cox does, too. His work doesn’t always show a clear sense of development or regression; it manages to be experimental without dating itself. _Halcyon Digest_’s closing track, “He Would Have Laughed,” ends abruptly and inconclusively. Among other things, it’s a rejection of time, and a statement against ordinary ideas about how an album should be structured. _Halcyon Digest_ is, in many ways, an argument for making music that doesn’t adhere to standard ideas of how a band should or shouldn’t progress. At this point, I’m convinced.