The word halcyon has two meanings. In one instance, it refers to a mythical bird with the ability to manipulate its surroundings to suit its own needs. On the other hand, it's commonly used to refer to a more idyllic time in one's life. The title of Deerhunter's fourth album, Halcyon Digest, encapsulates both to a degree.
Booming emptiness sets the stage as "Earthquake," the album opener, takes shape with a lumbering pulse that sucks you in. A wash of luminous guitar reaches out of the darkness, casting light on a song structure secretly building since the first cymbal crunch. Bradford Cox's delicate voice, shrouded in a haze of distortion, eases in, beckoning, "Do you recall waking up on a dirty couch in the grey fog, and the grey dog barking down the street?"
In one line, Cox reveals the same kind of wistful imagery that has defined Deerhunter and his Atlas Sound solo releases; but on Halcyon Digest (4AD Records), he charms listeners, not with layers of sonic abstraction, but with focused songwriting that aspires to a grounded place of acceptance.
Since the world outside of Atlanta discovered Deerhunter via its second album, Cryptograms (Kranky), released in 2007, much has changed. Back then the group's driving personality, vocalist/guitarist Cox, was bent on crafting hypnotic art-punk assaults steeped in layers of distortion, Krautrock rhythms and shoegaze. Fiery bits of nostalgia, isolation and broken childhood memories guided the group's grinding sound as it explored themes of frailty, anxiety and damaged emotions. It was a heavy-handed introduction for a group poised to take over the Pitchfork masses. But since then, Cox — along with drummer Moses Archuleta, bassist Josh Fauver and guitarist Lockett Pundt — has continually refined his approach.
Stylistically speaking, new songs such as "Don't Cry" and "Basement Scene" bear a resemblance to material from Halcyon Digest's twin predecessors, Microcastle and its accompanying bonus album Weird Era Cont., but only in their spaced-out strumming. There's no pining on Halcyon Digest, and by comparison, the previous releases feel half-baked and stuffed with filler.
But the group seems to have learned from Microcastle's weaknesses, and the album's first single, "Revival," glows with a relaxed, even uplifting chemistry that binds the album together. In "Don't Cry" Cox sings, "Come on, kid! Keep your head up and fight. You don't need to understand the reasons why." Such a stirring lyric, guided by warm guitar tones, captures the sound of a band at ease with its place in the universe. Anxiety is still occasionally present, but it's not the motivating factor. The newfound self-assurance gives rise to a more personable side of Cox. And when he sings, "You can't take too long writing a song," it becomes clear that he's learned to rely on his natural instincts; the influence of a master songwriter like Neil Young is also very apparent.
"Desire Lines" finds Pundt coming out of his shell to sing amid a rhythm section doing its best "Leader of the Pack" impersonation while a clean, autumnal guitar takes the lead, tussling with a colossal bass line. Pundt returns to sing again over the ethereal pop clouds of "Fountain Stairs," his voice harboring child-like innocence. With "Coronado," Cox wields an impressive vocal swagger, underscored by a searing saxophone. "He Would Have Laughed," Deerhunter's tribute to the late Jay Reatard, billows with spastic melodies that summon the songwriting style of Reatard's latter days. Here, it's an understated nod, and only one part of the album's most complex moment.
There's a tremendous amount of variety channeled into this collection of songs. The album goes straight to the pleasure centers of the brain, as Deerhunter's music has always done. History will most likely reveal that Halcyon Digest, as a whole, isn't the life-changing force of nature that was Cryptograms, but track-for-track, it tightens the band's focus as Deerhunter re-envisions those would-be idyllic years by casting out fiery nostalgia and maturing gracefully along the way.