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‘Halcyon Digest’ Revels in Unpredictability

Deerhunter -- "Halcyon Digest" -- 4AD -- 4.5 STARS

By Matthew C. Stone, Crimson Staff Writer

In a recent interview with BlackBook Magazine, Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox identified his own Atlanta four-piece as a somewhat erratic collection of music makers: "I think we’re more of a band that’s schizophrenic," he said, "We don’t know what we want to be." If that’s the diagnosis, Deerhunter’s fourth LP, "Halcyon Digest," embraces of this schizophrenia and milks it for all it’s worth. Their latest release captures, blends, and celebrates a wide array of sounds and styles more so than any of their previous records. On the whole, the record feels deeply satisfying—the tracks are consistently well crafted, and more importantly, the musical exploration here feels genuinely uninhibited. The end product ultimately benefits from reveling its own unpredictability and inconsistencies.

Deerhunter’s songwriting on "Halcyon Digest" makes melody central and atmosphere secondary—this album marks Deerhunter’s movement toward simpler, pop-influenced structures. Unfortunately, some songs fall victim to this new musical paradigm—"Don’t Cry," and "Memory Boy" are built around easy verse-chorus-verse structures and their mid-tempo quarter note patterns feel somewhat uninspired. Apart from some lackluster tracks, however, "Halcyon Digest" succeeds at mining a rich diversity of material from this stripped-down, more accessible musical aesthetic.

For instance, this record finds Deerhunter making forays into legitimate lo-fi aesthetics. Tracks like "Basement Scene" and, in particular, "Sailing" feel like first-takes in the studio. The latter pares away almost all of Deerhunter’s usual instrumentation, leaving Cox’s delicate falsetto to float above a lone, meandering guitar line. Factor in the bed of ambient sounds, and the song achieves a hypnotic, dazed euphoria.

In "Halcyon Digest," Deerhunter also indulge in new timbres that are atypical to their sound. "Revival"—the infectious first single from this LP—relies heavily on a jangling mandolin riff, and "Memory Boy" seamlessly mixes harmonica into its instrumental palette. The most conspicuous addition, however, are the saxophone skills of Bill Oglesby, who contributes to two tracks on the album. On the irresistible "Coronado" Oglesby gets to riff joyously over the bright, upbeat chord progression.

Unexpected moments of transcendence result from the musical experimentation throughout "Halcyon Digest." Deerhunter spin some stunning phrases out of relatively mundane musical elements. "Desire Lines"—a sprawling track penned by guitarist Lockett Pundt—starts with a driving bass line that carries the song through a few verses and straight into the jaw-dropping four-minute guitar solo that is the heart of the song.

The highlight of the entire album, however, has to be its closing track, "He Would Have Laughed," which is a tribute to the late garage rocker Jay Reatard. Cox recorded the sprawling eight-minute epic separately from the rest of the album. Nostalgia tints much of Cox’s work, and oftentimes he can make memories feel quite dark. So it comes as a surprise that "He Would Have Laughed" takes the memory of Reatard and instills it with a sense of lightness and placidity, building the song around an ascending guitar line and chiming electronic tones. The track is easily the finest "Halcyon Digest" has to offer, effortlessly conjuring joy and sorrow in a stirring tribute to Reatard’s memory.

Overall, "Halcyon Digest" is an exciting and engaging listen from start to finish. Throughout the record, there are several points where musical and aesthetic choices come as a surprise, but more often than not, these unexpected moments are genuinely exciting to hear. Call them schizophrenic, but if "Halcyon Digest," is any indication, that just means Deerhunter is on a path to more bold musical exploration.

—Staff writer Matthew C. Stone can be reached at mcstone@fas.harvard.edu.

Deerhunter’s songwriting on "Halcyon Digest" makes melody central and atmosphere secondary—this album marks Deerhunter’s movement toward simpler, pop-influenced structures. Unfortunately, some songs fall victim to this new musical paradigm—"Don’t Cry," and "Memory Boy" are built around easy verse-chorus-verse structures and their mid-tempo quarter note patterns feel somewhat uninspired. Apart from some lackluster tracks, however, "Halcyon Digest" succeeds at mining a rich diversity of material from this stripped-down, more accessible musical aesthetic.

For instance, this record finds Deerhunter making forays into legitimate lo-fi aesthetics. Tracks like "Basement Scene" and, in particular, "Sailing" feel like first-takes in the studio. The latter pares away almost all of Deerhunter’s usual instrumentation, leaving Cox’s delicate falsetto to float above a lone, meandering guitar line. Factor in the bed of ambient sounds, and the song achieves a hypnotic, dazed euphoria.

In "Halcyon Digest," Deerhunter also indulge in new timbres that are atypical to their sound. "Revival"—the infectious first single from this LP—relies heavily on a jangling mandolin riff, and "Memory Boy" seamlessly mixes harmonica into its instrumental palette. The most conspicuous addition, however, are the saxophone skills of Bill Oglesby, who contributes to two tracks on the album. On the irresistible "Coronado" Oglesby gets to riff joyously over the bright, upbeat chord progression.

Unexpected moments of transcendence result from the musical experimentation throughout "Halcyon Digest." Deerhunter spin some stunning phrases out of relatively mundane musical elements. "Desire Lines"—a sprawling track penned by guitarist Lockett Pundt—starts with a driving bass line that carries the song through a few verses and straight into the jaw-dropping four-minute guitar solo that is the heart of the song.

The highlight of the entire album, however, has to be its closing track, "He Would Have Laughed," which is a tribute to the late garage rocker Jay Reatard. Cox recorded the sprawling eight-minute epic separately from the rest of the album. Nostalgia tints much of Cox’s work, and oftentimes he can make memories feel quite dark. So it comes as a surprise that "He Would Have Laughed" takes the memory of Reatard and instills it with a sense of lightness and placidity, building the song around an ascending guitar line and chiming electronic tones. The track is easily the finest "Halcyon Digest" has to offer, effortlessly conjuring joy and sorrow in a stirring tribute to Reatard’s memory.

Overall, "Halcyon Digest" is an exciting and engaging listen from start to finish. Throughout the record, there are several points where musical and aesthetic choices come as a surprise, but more often than not, these unexpected moments are genuinely exciting to hear. Call them schizophrenic, but if "Halcyon Digest," is any indication, that just means Deerhunter is on a path to more bold musical exploration.

—Staff writer Matthew C. Stone can be reached at mcstone@fas.harvard.edu.

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