Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox once told me "music always takes special forms when it's intertwined with nostalgia." It's turned out to be a fitting assessment for Halcyon Digest, the fourth and, thus far, best album for his increasingly-popular, Atlanta-based rockband.
As its title so openly evokes, Halcyon Digest finds Cox —who also takes charge of the excellent Atlas Sound project— ruminating on getting older. As he recalls the endless sunny days of his youth, so Cox charts the passing of time, and the aching sadness that comes with. He often does this through the prism of rock'n'roll itself; his nostalgia for those carefree adolescent times spent in the garage, jamming just-for-kicks, seeming so sweet in a present in which Cox's every musical move is scrutinized.
The theme is at its most unavoidable in "Basement Scene," in which Cox 'borrows' the melody from The Everly Brothers "All I Have to Do is Dream," tapping into the sepia-toned, golden-age nostalgia that comes with any AM-radio-beloved pop-song so pure, perfect, and innocent. Here, memory itself is literally lit up golden —"if you've seen the light turn gold/come out tonight and we'll get stoned"— and the song, as it slips from the memory to the rememberer, is all about that intense teenage desire to get the hell out of your hometown.
This landscape —suburban sprawl on rural frontiers— reminds me not of The Suburbs, but Bobby Conn's The Golden Age. It's hardly coincidental: Cox happened to rank Conn's LP as the greatest of the 2000s. But, where Conn evoked parking lots, idle summer nights, and the almost pre-historical '70s milieu to mount a critique of neo-conservative America, here the only villain on hand is what these aimless kids end up grow into; Cox's condemnation of cold-hearted adulthood hardly sparing himself.
His end-of-song boast, in "Basement Scene" —"in the bluffs they know my name"— lives out the teenage dream, but the victory seems hollow; the celebration bitter; the upshot sad. What and who you remember may be sweetened by a charmed hint of nostalgia, but why you remember what you do, and how you feel about it now, can be loaded with an ache, an emptiness, a sadness.
Remembrance of Things Past
No other mammal is so aware of —so haunted by— the passing of time as is man. Memory is the defining human characteristic, and is both personal and shared; individual and collective. It's also its own form of currency.
Cox doesn't always remember out of his own volition; "Memory Boy's" opening response, "Did you stick with me?/Let me jog my memory," answering a question that ended up inspiring a song; this some considered, artistic response to a prompt to go trawling, again, through recollections. The song again aches with nostalgia; its best verse —"that October/he came over every day/the smell of loose leaf, joints on jeans/and we would play"— filled not just with tender memories of teenage rockbands, but seasons, smells, and snapshots; those Proustian triggers that can bring days of yore back with such vivid clarity that they seem as if yesterday.
The sense of time-slipping away is beautifully conveyed in the album's closing cut —and undoubted standout— "He Would Have Laughed," which sprawls out over nearly eight minutes, aglow with the golden tone of waves of sparkling, effects-spiraling guitar. Though the narrative of the tune isn't of the same adolescent-memories variety, the tune, too, explores the album's ideas; Cox's reverb-drenched vocals essentially voicing theme aloud in these three questions: "Where do your friends go?/Where do they see you?/What did you want to be?"
Gracefully, Down the Stream
Musically, Cox and co have never sounded better. Where past albums gave in to young person's follies —angst, sarcasm, abrasiveness, a tendency to wilfully shoot themselves in the foot— this one has all the best hallmarks of a band growing into itself: Halcyon Digest more relaxed, more ambitious, more thoughtful, and more tenderly realized than anything Deerhunter have done previous; Cox and Lockett Pund'’s guitars, once white-hot with noise and bluster, now ringing and chiming, teasing out tones and dancing with the other.
It's obviously the sound of a band growing up; boys becoming men, as it were. But, where, say, The National seem locked into a determinedly-middle-aged mindset, and seem to speak largely to people their age (and gender), Deerhunter's tales of getting older speak a more universal language. For, what is nostalgia if not the human condition?
Record Label: 4AD
Release Date: September 28, 2010