You wonder how Deerhunter find the hours in the day. After releasing not-one-but-two stunning albums in 2008, Bradford Cox and Lockett Pundt both found the time to put out accomplished solo albums before releasing this year’s new Deerhunter record – all without so much as a dent to their heroic touring schedule. If you’re a cynic waiting for a drop-off in quality, Halcyon Digest isn’t it.
The last time we heard from Deerhunter was 2009’s Rainwater Cassette Exchange (oh, did I not mention? They found time to put together a great stopgap EP too) which saw the band sounding more accessible, tightly focussed and downright poppy than ever before. Halcyon Digest doesn’t exactly move further in that direction (nor indeed does it sound especially like its direct predecessor) but it does paddle in similar waters.
Almost every song on offer here features at least one immediate, hooky refrain; channelling sixties doo-wop pop more substantially than the mere flirtations previously displayed by Cox. Gone are the baffling, ambient mysteries found on Weird Era Cont or Cryptograms. This is Deerhunter at their most obvious and instantly gratifying. Being the band that they are, Halcyon Digest is by no means an album of ‘Nothing Ever Happened’ retreads of course, but choruses to songs like ‘Memory Boy’ and ‘Desire Lines’ do flirt with the outright sing-along like that number did.
With last year’s Atlas Sound album, Bradford Cox became fully immersed in loops, samples, electronics and various other sonic manipulations. By direct contrast, it would seem that Cox is using Halcyon Digest to re-establish Deerhunter as a bread-and-butter guitar band. Employing simple and clean guitar tones (with a few modest touches of fuzz here and there), Deerhunter are plainly a humble four-piece on this record – largely choosing to shun their fleet of sound-expanding effects pedals. Rather than the band’s usual towering onslaughts of sound, we get verses supported by intricate guitar lines given space to breathe by minimal, shuffling drum work.
The downside of this more organic production is that the album suffers slightly from lack of dynamic or interesting textural shifts; two things that the band employed so well on previous releases. The shimmering ‘Helicopter’ is perhaps the only track here which employs Deerhunter’s usual build and release to any meaningful degree; Cox’s delicate refrains positively ache to slide out from under the ever swelling layers of guitars that build between verses – a rare oasis of gloriously shifting textures.
Even more outstanding is the album’s closing track, a piece so inventive and colourful that it casts all which came before it in grey shadow. As if he couldn’t hold it back any longer, Cox surrenders himself entirely to his more experimental tendencies on ‘He Would Have Laughed’: looped acoustic guitars, a complex bed of percussion, and a more stream-of-consciousness song structure all combine to create the album’s most entrancing moment – a glittering example of what can happen when this band really lets themselves loose.
Of course, it’s Deerhunter’s prerogative if they want to use this record to remind us that they’re essentially a rock band playing pop songs – and in setting out to achieve this aim, it’s frequently brilliant. But it’s nonetheless frustrating (and a downright tease) to conclude the album by giving us a glimpse of what such modest aims have been standing in the way of. It’s a Deerhunter album, so it’s ultimately an excellent album, of course – but Halcyon Digest’s fleeting displays of raw capability leave the listener anticipating their next release, rather than fully appreciating this one.