Halcyon Digest was released nearly a month ago – in the rapid-fire blogosphere, it’s old news, replaced by shiny new albums and bands that have been together for fifteen minutes. Why, then, am I writing this review now, behind in the game? Well, for one, I’ve been busy. But more importantly, Halcyon Digest deserves time to ruminate; your brain needs to roll it over a few times and check it out from all angles and in good light. For lack of a better word, and because it’s a nice little pun, this album needs to be digested.
Other Deerhunter albums have needed to be digested too, but for different reasons. Bradley Cox & Co. have made some of the densest, most enigmatic records of any band currently producing music, flinging warped guitars and run-on-fragments across double albums, solo projects, and countless EPs. To some, the band has been off-putting in its commitment to noisy psychedelia. Here, however, that noise fades away, leaving the spinal cord of Deerhunter exposed. It’s a poignant change; a reminder of the frail skeleton that lies inside of even the most violent body.
Which isn’t to say that Halcyon Digest is simplistic. Far from it. After turning it over in your mind for a few listens, you’ll likely find levels of intricacy unimagined on the first spin. This record, with its perfectly cast production, is full of songs that are simultaneously beautiful and haunting, joyful and sad. These are the types of songs that Brian Wilson would strum on his guitar and sing to himself as he fell asleep with a head full of dope.
The title Halcyon Digest is, in the words of Cox, “a reference to a collection of fond memories and even invented ones…The way that we write and rewrite and edit our memories to be a digest version of what we want to remember, and how that's kind of sad." That description alone is enough to re-contextualize the album’s eleven tracks, explaining the sort of beautiful melancholy found throughout. Songs like “Don’t Cry” and “Revival” sound a bit like eavesdropping on a sad old stereo playing Beach Boys songs from memory and thinking about days past. There’s more edge than that would imply – hints of the distrustful snarl of Sonic Youth or the broken Deftones creak can be heard – but the sentiment stands. Halcyon Digest brilliantly mixes immediate pop familiarity with world-weary malaise.
Deerhunter has been described as ambient punk rock, a term which fits this album fairly well. Perhaps more explicitly, it’s pop ambient punk rock, or post-punk shoegaze pop. Or perhaps most explicitly, Deerhunter cannot be conveniently placed into these boxes, any more than life works in blacks and whites. There’s not a happy memory that’s not tinged with some sort of sadness, either in the memory or for the moment that is gone. Deerhunter has stripped down to a sparse core that is at times fuzzy and warm (on lead single “Revival”), at times chillingly cold (on opening track “Earthquake”), and at times both (on psychedelically nostalgic “Helicopter”).
The album’s final track is simultaneously the most explicative and cryptic. Dedicated to the late Jay Reatard, “He Would Have Laughed” builds slowly, diagramming the ambition and regret of a life remembered in collage. We catch snatches of lyrics as they drift off into the wind, conversations half recalled. It’s a promise to never rest, to keep breathing, to get old, and to reflect; it’s also a warning that reflection is an imperfect analysis. Finally, when the song comes to the end seven and a half minutes into the track, it cuts off a few beats too short, mid-note. It’s a distressing end to anyone looking for resolution from this challenging record, this album drenched in nuance and complexity. But that’s the way life works. As Cox explains on “He Would Have Laughed,” “in sweetness comes suffering.”
HALCYON DIGEST READER RATING
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