Monday, November 15, 2010
Deerhunter: Halcyon Digest (2010)
So I'll tell you right off, cover art's not something we'll be discussing much around here because that's what design blogs are for. But take a good long look at that album cover above. See it enlarged here. Bizarre as it sounds, the image defines this recording almost frighteningly well. Its classicist, very old and ghostly atmosphere; its deceptive mystery; its infinite distance from our or any reality; but its tangible sampling of something that was once an actual moment. The viewer is compelled to consider all of the record's themes before s/he even hears it -- memory, loss, unrequited want, and the dreamlike haze of passed years -- or knows the title. Take the song "Basement Scene" as a theis statement; sounding like a great, scratchy old record heard from many rooms away somewhere deep inside another apartment or room, it effortlessly beckons those introspections. That night, that look in his or her eyes, the reason we didn't do this or that, and then the real reason we didn't do it.
When you look at that picture, you're seeing a man named Dennis Dinion dressed in drag for a 1982 pageant at an Atlanta venue called the Star Lite Lounge, which closed the following day. According to this (the source for all of what I'm telling you, so I hope it's accurate), Dinion was a substitute teacher by daylight. Years later, the Star Lite became a sign shop that once employed a man named Bradford Cox. Around two decades after this photo was taken, Bradford Cox formed a band called Deerhunter.
Deerhunter is a rock band that plays rock music, not "ambient punk," the term they seem to prefer, at least not anything that can be pared down to "ambient punk," or "ambient," or "punk." The only word that isn't overly reductive for them is "rock." Their stock in trade, depending on your perspective, is either a grasping at classic, emotive pop form from within a fuzzed-out bubble or a grasping at abrasive heat and release from within the framework of classic, emotive pop songs. I say the latter, because the feather-touch pop hook on "Memory Boy" sounds not the least bit labored, nor does the straightforward and reflective garage sound of "Coronado," but does it really make a difference? Halcyon Digest sounds like night time. It has the mystery and intensity of actions taken, hedonistic or desperate, that will result in who knows what after sunrise. The key to its enigma is surprisingly simple: Deerhunter is hardly emotionally aloof, it's just that the feeling is all in the music, not the vocals, which are cool and disaffected, unfazed by the enchanting kicks of joy from a room full of guitar persuasion. But there's beauty in the casual. Witness the way it tempers the high punk rock drama of "Desire Lines" until it begins swimming in circa-Bunnymen college jangle pop; the song ends up teeming with life, demanding to be revisited.
Although the band's chosen to open with their strangest offering here, the dynamic stop/start slow burn "Earthquake," this isn't experimental music; it's an experimental recontextualization. Even "Earthquake" ultimately is a warm bath. If you buy the notion, which isn't entirely unbelievable, that all the core ideas of rock & roll were explored by 1969 and most of them by 1959, and that we've just been refining and delving deeper in those same ideas ever since, then Halcyon Digest won't persuade you otherwise. Like the Walkmen's Lisbon and Hot Chip's "Slush," it is 2010 recorded music that is built from 1950s ideas. Plainspoken expression, sure, but to be more specific, Deerhunter here tackles not just doo wop, like both the Walkmen and Hot Chip, or Sun Records, like the Walkmen, but lush mainstream pop and country, even a shade of lounge and Beautiful Music, somehow a symbol of all of the faraway importances and expired sensibilities that seem so gently acknowledged and lampooned by the gentleman on our LP cover, in turn an artifact of a now equally vanished time and place.
If there is a dot to connect here from some dusty pile of 78s to now, it is Television's first two albums, Marquee Moon and Adventure. Indeed, "Fountain Stairs" could nearly pass for early Television, offering Verlainesque lyrics, apathetic collegiate vocals, earnest chiming, and those aural city lights, while "Sailing" sounds like a missing link between Adventure and the band's calm, beautiful 1992 comeback album: the minimalistic and focused intensity, the oceanic sound, the infinite restraint cast off by a subtle heaviness of thought. Television's followers insisted they were a punk rock band; leader Tom Verlaine insisted he was a poet. But the theoretically harsh, angular noises they made that fell so sweetly on neo-street corner songs like "Prove It" and "Careful," as though they had always been there, presented the idea of rock not as a continually evolving singular beast but as a vernacular in which to operate, a forever-renewable resource. It is for this reason that Deerhunter is not retreading, they are revisiting, and with a heavier heart and more beautiful baggage than ever before. "Don't Cry" could be a sequel to "Prove It," but in every heavily reverbed note is a gorgeously expressed sadness. The chamber-intricacy and John Lennon vocals of "Revival," with its persuasive but easy Brit-Invasion or Motown beat, could have existed at any point in the last fifty years and is thus provided with a feeling of an infinite life.
That Hot Chip song is an interesting comparison because of the odd emotional solidarity it suggests between doo wop and adult-contemporary soft pop. The way Deerhunter pushes Television's instincts is by conjuring up memories of a subgenre that didn't yet really exist at the time of Marquee Moon: dream pop. Electronics and ancient pop collide with the Smiths and the Jesus & Mary Chain on "Helicopter," in many ways the emotional climax of the record. The closing "He Would Have Laughed," a dedication to recently deceased friend Jay Reatard, is an wailing epic of sad elation that belongs in some classic Truffaut film, or rather in the Walkman of a film appreciation student circa 1987 who loves Truffaut. Deerhunter has historically carried elements of shoegaze, but this album uniquely casts two forms of long-past decades as a mutually reliant life soundtrack, a rationalizating, categorizing of the past -- a wistful and pressing desire to comprehend and cope with it. Perhaps the reason that Halcyon Digest feels so universally magic is that not one of us isn't familiar with that feeling. Moreover, the album begs to become an ingredient in that cataloging. I can't think of a higher compliment to pay than that when I hear this music, I flash back and re-score my life with it. It couldn't feel more right, and I bet an armload of 45s that the same is true for you.