For additional background on Deerhunter, refer to Microcastle / Weird Era Cont. (2008).
Released in the midst of what has turned out to be the best year in music of the decade thus far, Halcyon Digest marks Deerhunter’s continued embrace of the pop sensibilities on their acclaimed 2007 release Cryptograms. Invoking influences as varied as 50’s rockabilly, early 90’s dream pop, and the proto-punk, metropolitan sonnets of The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967), Deerhunter recreates their characteristic melancholy in a way that is more intimate and immediately accessible than the relative esoterica of Microcastle and Cryptograms.
Opener “Earthquake” starts off with a reverb-drenched, hypnotic arpeggiated guitar riff and Bradford Cox’s barely audible stream-of-consciousness vocals. The languid lethargy of these first five minutes gives way to the jangle-pop energy of “Don’t Cry” and “Revival,” two tracks that could have easily passed as Beatles hits if not for their macabre subject matter. “Sailing”, an unassuming ballad rooted in a blues-based chord progression, is on closer inspection, one of Deerhunter’s greatest compositions. In a pensive, zen-like mantra, Cox describes the blissful peace of isolation: “I didn’t mind, no/ Nowhere to be/ Nothing to see/ Except me”; “Only fear/ Can make you feel lonely out here/ You learn to accept/ Whatever you can get. . .”
The deceptively haunting “Helicopter” reiterates Deerhunter’s penchant for veiling somber lyrics in otherwise jovial pop songs. The track is a tribute to the heartrending story of human trafficking victim Dmitry Makarov, who was sexually assaulted and murdered after entangling himself with an organized Russian crime group. In the final lines of the song, Cox attempts to capture the psychodrama of a man who had experienced nothing but misery and exploitation in his short life: “No one cares for me/ I keep no company/ I have minimal needs/ And now they are through with me/ Now they are through, with me. . .”
Closing track “He Would Have Laughed” ends the album as cryptically as it had been started. A looping acoustic guitar riff and folkish vocal melody is periodically interjected by shimmering electronica, until a quiet refrain that almost evokes a mind peacefully ignorant of an insidious dementia: “I lived on a farm, yeah/ I never lived on a farm/ Where did my friends go?/ Where did my friends go. . .?”
Although Halcyon Digest appears on surface level to be merely a collection of agreeable pop music, there is an abundance of musique concrète-esque experimentation and latent themes of apathetic dreariness that give the album an under-appreciated depth. This is a record that echoes across generations – Deerhunter are able to masterfully recapitulate the songs of the past in the context of contemporary rock music, and create what will surely become a modern classic.
Deerhunter – Sailing