Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Atlas Sound: Parallax (2011)
There isn't much background to Bradford Cox's creation of his third solo album under the Atlas Sound name that can really link itself to the way it finally falls upon you. You read stories about a nervous breakdown, about his lonesome lack of a social life and much of anything to excite him outside of his music, and all the same when the "Karma Police"-like breakdown of "Amplifiers" and the apocalyptic ending of "Terra Incognita" wash over with their white noise and feedback, it's not a feeling of arid alienation that visits; it's a love of that noise, and even directly, Cox must interrupt the aural-sex malfunction with either the lovable broken-toyshop trills of "Te Amo" or the hissing acoustic sadness of "Flagstaff." Either way, something warm and sweet and strange.
It's hard to get your arms around Parallax when it's not playing because it's like grappling for wisps of some lovely dream. Cox attained something akin to this sense of gravity and loveliness on last year's Halcyon Digest by his band Deerhunter, an introspective and deeply conflicted valentine to the past and to our interpretations and ideas of it. Honestly though, as cradled as we may have felt by the revelatory distance and maturity on that record, Atlas Sound goes so very much farther here -- it's like witnessing a gifted younger sibling who can draw well suddenly grow into a master painter in just over a year. Halcyon Digest might be precedent to this in some thematic way, but it can more accurately be described as a stepping stone.
To be frank, if Deerhunter's most recent record was like witnessing some telling series of lovely or haunting details out of the corner of your eye, Parallax is like viewing it through a veil of tears. It's just as fixated on memory, but as an emotional tool rather than a theme; here lies its triumph. After just one listen, its melodies and riffs and chords linger as if they've always existed; heard again, they seem iconic and relentlessly pretty and, above all, familiar. Witness the instantly iconic opening riff of "My Angel Is Broken," which you can hardly believe isn't some Pixies or Jesus & Mary Chain classic you've momentarily forgotten. The grand contradiction of Cox's new music is shared with no less grand a legend than the Beach Boys -- a bold, gentle romanticism clashing with the pure celebration of solitude. Cox loves being alone, creating and remembering, but he also condemns it and longs for something to fill in the distance between himself and the rest of the world; you can hear that longing in even the celebratory moments, even in the bellowing, watery slowdance of "Amplifiers."
That track, early on the album, toys and teases subtly much like Deerhunter -- its major clues to the Parallax modus operandi are its more broadly playful and sensual elements. Cox's growth as a musician here can be measured largely by his directness. It seems hardly imaginable that he ever before would have permitted the adorably kitschy "Te Amo," the open-armed unstrained beauty of "Mona Lisa," both as blissful and unpretentious as modern pop gets, completely unfettered by any of the art-prog leanings that once characterized his day-job band. He previously made a name as a stylist, but all of that is shed in favor of something remarkably cathartic and personal even as it allows by far his most accessible, selfless material thus far. Even if "Lightsworks" puts on the sharp doo wop guise and "Terra Incognita" blows through a ba ba ba ba ba '60s routine, both routunes are in service of something wistful, stark, and peaceful.
Cox's use of his own uneven psychology to produce divinely assured, heavenly popcraft has of course plenty of precedent, but part of the appeal of Parallax is what feels like an absence of grand design -- it seems an honest and clear-headed capturing of an incredibly fertile mood, following the artist through the ups and downs of a long night. You can only vaguely hear the hard work that must have produced it, the momentum and determination clearest on opener "The Shakes." The one thing that isn't really surprising about the project is that the most all-around startling creations may be those in which Cox wallows in the death and darkness that seems to consume him these days, a wunderkind entering adulthood -- the neon drunkenness of "Modern Aquatic Nightsongs" is as strikingly real as it is breathtakingly sad, and the cavernous delicacy of "Doldrums" is the most appealingly emotive shapeless confection of the year.
But you can't shoehorn a thesis statement into this -- it's too achingly real, and too passionate. Above all else, this is underlined by the vocals, which are eerily grand despite the bedroom compression, distortion and glitchy editing that deliberately challenges their reign over the music. Cox's voice reaches moments of cascading perfection that recall the best moments of John Lennon's final year of recording ("Mona Lisa") or a warped Tom Verlaine as his most smitten and frantic ("My Angel Is Broken"). Cox so perfectly captures a lost, blissful loneliness on the title track that you can't help hearing some doubt beind his impassioned "I'll pretend you were the only one" on "Te Amo," sung like an announcement from on high, like he's a titan with nothing to lose in his own weird world.
These songs are remarkable on their own, but in truth they only function at their fullest when heard together, an increasing rarity in the indieverse that renders Parallax one of the small handful of LPs that justify the album as a genuine artform. Yes, you can marvel at how "Parallax" itself wrings so much nervous energy out of its glorious hook, and the otherworldly beauty of "Doldrums" or the Luna-like open-hearted sweet pop of "Mona Lisa" can leap out at you unexpectedly regardless, but the album as a complete piece casts a hypnotic spell that renders all of the above maximally pleasurable, even masterful.
But if you have to pare this grand romance and deeply felt confessional to a microcosm, make it "Praying Man," Bradford Cox in a wonderful nutshell -- the uncivilized simplicity, the guitar relentlessness, the unexpected harmonica, and above all, the sha la la la la la. You could make a convincing argument that sha la la la la la la is what we've been missing in rock & roll, in indie music, in our lives. Here it is, and plenty of it.