Not every great band has a single moment in their catalog on which the rest of their career hinges. While some great bands just start out that way, most great bands get incrementally better until one day they release an album that is so stunningly good that the critical consensus confirms that they have arrived. Deerhunter’s arrival has a specific flashpoint, a moment that precisely marks their ascendency into the ranks of the best bands working in America right now. Emerging out of the blizzard of feedback and white noise that drifts across the first half of Crytpograms, “Spring Hall Convert” is a clear-headed, swirling pop song that would define the expectations and fulfilled promises of the band forever more. And Deerhunter have delivered time and again with each subsequent release.
After the excellent one-two punch of Microcastles and Weird Era Cont, Deerhunter are back after a characteristically brief absence with Halcyon Digest, another album filled with fractured pop songs that are as catchy as they are strange. The album is further confirmation that almost everything that has come after “Spring Hall Convert” has been an important touchstone in indie rock in the early 21st century.
The remarkable thing about Deerhunter has always been that they are unafraid to lean on what they do well (stirringly strange pop songs) and successfully experiment with other songs and song structures. That said, the most immediate draw of Halycon Digest will be the short, poppy numbers like “Revival” and “Memory Boy” and “Fountain Stairs.” These kinds of songs have always been Deerhunter’s bread and butter: energetic blasts of optimism that belie their sometimes dark lyrical content. Locket Pundt’s “Fountain Stairs,” in particular, features the kind of transcendent stomp that the band has been perfecting for years now. During the wordless chorus, an insidiously catchy hook swells to outsize the song’s humble boundaries. Elsewhere, “Revival” is folky gospel number about the salvation of God’s grace. The song’s earnest and cooly undogmatic attitude sells it convincingly.
And while the album features the kind of idiosyncratic songcraft that seems to marry the poppiest elements of Sonic Youth and half-forgotten doo-wop melodies, Halcyon Digest is its most successful when it pushes the Deerhunter envelope. In the past, when the band slowed down they tended to get weird and murky and evanescent. Halcyon Digest marks a significant departure from this formula because the slowest songs tend to be the most rewarding. The album is dotted with a few songs of unabashed beauty: “Sailing,” Helicopter,” and “He Would Have Laughed.” Of these three, the prettiest might be “Helicopter,” a sparkling song about the horrible life of a Russian sex slave (seriously). Bradford Cox has always come across as possessing a super-human kind of sympathy, and “Helicopter” is among his most generous and heartfelt of his character portraits. Similarly, “He Would Have Laughed” is the self-eulogy of the late Jay Reatard. The song features a processed acoustic guitar riff that Cox expands and shrinks and softens often enough to carve out noticeable peaks and valleys to suggest a narrative-like structure. By way of a climax, the band enteres a glimmering faux-ending that slowly blossoms into a stunningly beautiful conclusion.
Cryptograms, Deerhunter’s breakthrough album, was neatly divided between the aching squalls of feedback of the first half and the breezy, pop-centered songcraft of the second half. In this sense, the album was the perfect declaration of purpose that band ever composed. But after having exorcised the impulse to create dazzling washes of undifferentiated noise, Deerhunter have set themselves up reinventing the role of pop music in indie rock. And in that aim, Halcyon Digest is yet enough towering triumph. It both confirms everything that they have done well for years now and insists on expanding the banquet of sounds that they generously offer eager listeners.
Rating: 8.5 / 10