Across two pairs of full-lengths and EPs into which the mainstream indie rock press thrust its winner-picking prongs, Deerhunter reverse engineered the typical fate of darling newcomers. Rather than using up its quota of inspired songwriting then veering into sonic experiments to mask writer’s block, the group began enshrouded in elaborate instrumental textures then came forth through the thicket bearing the gift of memorable pop. The next step in this pleasantly surprising path, Halcyon Digest is Deerhunter’s most accessible and best effort to date — a magical little universe where novel, distinctive sounds enliven classic pop structures.
If likening Halcyon Digest to a world unto itself seems hyperbolic, consider the opening sounds of “Earthquake.” An arpeggiated, harp-like synth part resembles the soundtrack to an underwater world in the galaxy of Super Mario. Yet it’s paired with a plodding rhythm track — suction sound on the one, drum machine snap on the three — that sounds like Massive Attack is slowly invading. Hovering atop it all, Bradford Cox’s heavily distorted vocal becomes just one piece of the elaborate architecture.
“Earthquake” ushers the listener into a record with both a remarkably unified aesthetic and many standout moments. Previewed for the blogosphere well before the album release, “Revival” is a charming, jangly jaunt that sounds like the crystallized potential of that uneven but charming singles-churning ensemble The Coral. Likewise “Helicopter,” with its crisp percussive snaps awash in the same sort of dreamscape as “Earthquake,” is a melancholy, noise pop lullaby. “No one cares for me / I keep no company / I have minimal needs / And now they are through with me,” Cox muses, but the music is less bitter than sweet. Such numbers extend the fresh and endearing sound of Deerhunter’s 2009 EP Rainwater Cassette Exchange and pair it with more resonant melodies.
Yet it is the more upbeat, shimmering pop numbers on Halcyon Digest that leave the firmest imprint. On “Desire Lines,” for instance, the group updates the classic sound of The Stone Roses, layering ethereal vocal harmonies atop spiraling guitar lines in the mode of John Squire. Clocking in at over six and a half minutes, the track reconciles the Deerhunter of new and old; it’s equal parts tight, melodic pop and stretched-out, instrumental meandering. “Memory Boy” is more emphatic, its soaring guitar riff leading up to, then topping off, the addictive refrain. “It’s not a house anymore . . . Try to recognize your son, in your eyes he’s gone,” Cox sings, and when the bright lead returns, the triumph of nostalgic gloss takes on a hint of self-consciousness. Also winning is the surprising “Coronado,” where Cox, vocal-filtered a la Julian Casablancas, sings verses while a squawking yet melodic sax intermittently substitutes for a proper refrain. It’s a daring mix that might have been a mess, but somehow sounds wildly at peace with itself — like just about every experiment on a set quite deserving of its name.
Deerhunter is not a newcomer to the peaks of indie reverence. But it has grown into the hype that was prematurely bestowed. Now a long way from its days as a relatively nondescript noise-rock outfit, it can hardly be misidentified or dismissed for say, its participation in the lamentable vogue for cervine band names. Deerhunter has come into its own, and the halcyon result is not to be missed.
(This review was written at 30,000ft in a Boeing 737)