There are a lot of bands that write about suburbia, but few expose its corrupted underbelly as well as Deerhunter — which makes it all the more of a shame that Halcyon Digest does not continue the tradition of bedroom psychedelia evident in Microcastle/Weird Era Cont. and Cryptograms/Fluorescent Grey. It appears that Brad Cox is steering the band toward a middle ground, hoping perhaps for crossover success from more casual listeners. This is the closest Deerhunter has come to putting out a purely pop record. Though album opener “Earthquake” is every bit of the reverb-drenched thrum that we’ve come accustomed to from the band, the track never goes anywhere, never builds tension, and the same can be said for the rest of the record with the exception of a couple scattered highlights like “Revival” and synth popper “Helicopter.”
On the whole, the production is cleaner, the vocals more crisp and clear, and the song structures tighter than on previous efforts, but something is missing from this album: the weird. The bizarre, eccentric, and strange hung like a funeral shroud over everything Deerhunter did up to and including last year’s excellent Rainwater Cassette Exchange EP, but on Halcyon Digest, gone is the wide-eyed precocity of tracks like “Vox Humana” or “Hazel Street,” the sound collage of “Circulation” or “Saved by Old Times,” the brash experimentation of “Octet,” or the slinkiness of “Operation.” Songs like these are replaced by numbers that plod along pleasantly, but lack the sonic dynamics that made the aforementioned albums such high wire walkers.
That’s not to say most listeners won’t find something to like about this album, but taken as a whole, it does not quite gel. The band itself sounds sublimated, making Deerhunter sound more and more like the work of one man. Though Cox’s vocals are more confident and assured than ever, the lyrics are drained of menace. The music itself seems more self-aware, making the listening less satisfying. For all the atmospherics and studio gimmickry, Halcyon Digest comes off as the band’s most toothless effort to date.
This is not the album longtime listeners of Deerhunter were hoping for, but this might just work for the casual crossover fan. Despite a couple of standouts, this record is pretty much a non-starter, relying too much on techno gadgetry, overdubs, and reverb, never emerging from its own mire. One would hope this is only a temporary blip in what had been a steady ascendance. No one hits a homerun in every at bat, but here we have what seems more like a bunt, a calculated play, not too flashy, just trying to advance the runners and just maybe make a big score.
The appearance of a saxophone on “Coronado” sounds almost Springsteen-esque, and by no means sweetens the deal. Deerhunter is a band that built their reputation on weirdness, but this move toward the middle feels like a step backwards. The record-buying public would be well advised to skip the filler on this dud and opt for the “Revival” b/w “Primitive 3D” single, which pretty much distills all that’s interesting about this record.
Maybe it has to do with the fact that Halcyon Digest isn’t as expansive as Deerhunter’s previous releases, or perhaps those earlier two records are actually four distinct pieces of music, since each album side has its own unique artwork and title. Maybe there’s a little less mystery to distinguish this one, or it could be that, opposed to every other Deerhunter album I’ve listened to, I heard this one as a digital stream, supporting my unprovable belief that analog is a richer, truer sound. I can’t say it’s all that fair to review the album this way, and I wonder whether Brad would agree. Maybe, for all I know, there’s a great album hidden among these ones and zeroes. One thing is for sure, unlike past releases, Deerhunter is not reaching beyond their selves, which is a shame, because unbridled experimentation has always been this band’s greatest asset and defining characteristic. In setting out to make an album that is palatable to the largest possible audience, Cox et al have succeeded only in making one that is rather forgettable.
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