We first started talking about Halcyon Digest in early July via Deerhunter’s “interactive Xerox art project,” the one where Bradford Cox made an old-fashioned paper ‘n’ glue flyer and then asked fans to print it, photocopy it, hang it up around their town, take a photo, and send the results to the band. As far as the inspiration for the project, Cox mentioned “being fascinated with the ephemera of’ 70’s – 80’s artrock in record stores like Wuxtry in Athens where I hung out as a kid or Wax ‘N Facts in Atlanta.” As far as the album title, Cox has explained:
[Halcyon Digest] is a reference to a collection of fond memories and even invented ones, like my friendship with Ricky Wilson or the fact that I live in an abandoned victorian autoharp factory. The way that we write and rewrite and edit our memories to be a digest version of what we want to remember, and how that’s kind of sad.
This is relevant: Cox is a colorful, charismatic personality, one who pushes boundaries in interviews and on-stage banter, but at the end of the day, Deerhunter’s music is more ’80s and ’90s indie nostalgic than boundary pushing (same could be said for the more abstract Atlas Sound). It’s part of the reason it strikes so many cords with such a diverse audience (guest spots with Stereolab, the Breeders, etc.). He does a great job reprocessing (and Digesting) the sounds of the past through his own collagist aesthetic. Think of that flyer again.
More than past Deerhunter albums, Halcyon Digest sounds like a blend of Cox’s solo work and band projects. It’s a kinder, gentler Deerhunter. Much of it’s understated and more insular than Microcastle. (You don’t get an “It Never Stops,” though “Desire Lines” does work itself into a bit of a psychedelic rush.) Still, the sound is plenty lush, layered. And what it lacks in “rockers,” it makes up for in a quieter headphone ambiance. When we say Cox’s aesthetic tends toward looking backwards, it’s not meant as a pejorative. Halcyon Digest is a gorgeous album. Cox has a gift for turning out polished material at a Robert Pollard rate. (Even if the opening strains of the Dennis Cooper-stamped “Helicopter” sounds a bit like Owl City.)
As far as the nostalgia, it’s the theme here and it’s rich. The lead track “Revival” sounds like the soundtrack to a ’50s high-school dance. Same goes for “Don’t Cry,” which could also work as a Girls tune. “Basement Scene” intentionally nods to the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have To Do Is Dream.” The Lilys-esque standout pop nugget “Memory Boy” talks about jogging memories. Bill Oglesby adds wafts of your father’s saxophone to “Coronado.” And all of these, from the spacey psych of the opener “Earthquake” onward, somehow sound like songs Cox has recorded alone in his bedroom.
As far as climaxes, the collection closes with its prettiest moment, “He Would Have Laughed,” a shimmering, looping 7-minutes that feels like part Magnetic Fields/part electro-Baroque until the strummed second half (which sounds like what Cox has been doing at Atlas Sound live shows recently). It was supposedly written for Jay Reatard, looks at the boredom of getting older, opens up and stretches in a way nothing else does on Halcyon. In that way, it places the collection in the present. Albeit, minus someone else’s.
Halcyon Digest is out 9/28 via 4AD.