Exploring the Psychedelic Nostalgia of Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest.


Freddie Rose (he/him) explores Deerhunter's "true 'pop' opus", Halcyon Digest

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Image by Julio Enriquez

By Freddie Rose

As the 2010s dawned, Atlanta four-piece Deerhunter found themselves on a burgeoning creative winning streak, fresh off the back of a string of projects that compounded eerie shoegaze soundscapes with raw, pulsing, visceral energy. Fronted by eccentric musical visionary Bradford Cox,  the band came to be known for their free-form ambience and sonic experimentation that they skillfully pushed further into shimmering pop structures and confines with each new release. Nearing the end of the decade, their streak culminated in the critical success and haunting sonic addiction that is 2008’s Microcastle.

However, the band’s biggest breakthrough and true ‘pop’ opus came in the form of 2010’s Halcyon Digest, which saw the band further tapping into and distilling the covert mid-century pop influences of Microcastle to create an album that ingeniously juxtaposed vibrant melodicism against disturbing lyricism, traditional pop structures against unfurling psychedelia, and heart-pounding rhythmic intensity against screeching feedback and unnerving soundscapes.

The overarching theme of Halcyon Digest could be summarised in a single word: nostalgia. Right from the very title of the album (and its ghostly cover art), the band are prying at how we interact with our nostalgia, our childhood, and our fading memories. The songs reflect on the potential for time to change us as people, shifting our dreams and desires as we grow up, causing us to look back and damagingly pine for the simpler “halcyon days”.

The album starts sparsely with opener ‘Earthquake’ and its brittle drum machine loop. It’s soon joined by an equally sparing guitar arpeggio, but it’s not long until the song is then filled and overwhelmed by echoing guitars sparkling amongst Cox’s distinctly creepy vocal performance. Here and throughout the album, Cox’s vocals are smattered with a heavy dose of slap-back echo, soaking his voice in a finely aged retrograde paint that instantly evokes the nostalgic sound of the 1950s.

The garage-rock fuzziness of ‘Don’t Cry’ further cements the sonic and thematic realm of the album. Thick saturated layers of drums thump slowly against overdriven guitars, before the track falls apart beneath itself under the repeated refrain of “why? oh, why?”. For the next minute, the song crawls on, continually sounding as if it will collapse at any second under the weight of its now gravely sluggish tempo. Scattered amongst the clatter are meandering guitar lines, sleepy acoustic strums, and primitive bashes of maraca. All the while, Cox has retreated to the frail, unintelligible mutter of a sick young boy akin to the one he’s been consoling for the past two minutes of the song (“Come on, little boy, you don’t need to cry…”). Given his difficult childhood and life-long struggle with Marfan Syndrome, it's not hard to imagine this is Cox reassuring his younger self.

After one last guitar meander neatly wraps itself up, next track ‘Revival’ swiftly interjects with an upbeat vibrancy, unheard in the album until now, and indeed, Cox justifies this antithesis with the religiously coloured opening lines: “I am saved, I’m saved!”. The only track to come close to the compact pop-perfection of ‘Revival’ is the impeccable single ‘Memory Boy’, with its colourful splashes of harmonica and enigmatic recurring refrain (“It’s not a house anymore…”).

Preceding ‘Memory Boy’ is the album’s fourth track ‘Sailing’, which is bold in its stripped back instrumentation and deep melancholic indulgence so early on in the album. It’s easy to picture Cox alone at sea strumming dolefully, accompanied only by his own voice and guitar, the whir and hiss of the sea, and the occasional reverberated tambourine splash that echoes out like the metallic knocking of sails against their poles. It’s painfully lonely, and yet strikingly beautiful.

A similar sentiment can be said for later album track ‘Basement Scene’, whose lo-fi analogue production refocuses the album’s sonic nostalgia. The song floats along like an unsettling dream, occasionally interjected by rampant delay feedback and large swallowing swaths of reverb. The fragile instrumentation draws our ears instead to the lyrics, where Cox is at first infatuated with his fading teenage memories, before his tune changes to one filled with a more existential dread, as he questions whether his old friends remember him the way he wants to be, if at all. Cox grew up in a part of Atlanta called ‘The Bluff’, and – in an elusive double entendre – ends the song by anxiously assuring himself: “In the Bluffs they know my name”.

The other – equally important – voice of Halcyon Digest is that of Lockett Pundt, who proves his song-writing capability with two tracks on the record: the intensely catchy ‘Fountain Stairs’, and the astonishing centrepiece of the album, ‘Desire Lines’. On the latter, Pundt revisits the idea of time as a purveyor of, often involuntary, change. The song bounds along through its traditional verse-chorus structure, as Pundt reflects on the way maturity confines us to single pathways in life, in contrast to the whole metaphorical playing-field that was seemingly obtainable to us in our childhood. In an impulsive twist, the song then ecstatically breaks free of its own destined path, excursing through a nearly four minute instrumental coda, brimming with free-roaming psychedelic guitar lines and woozy shoegaze textures. Meanwhile, the driving rhythm section consisting of Moses Archeluta’s pounding motorik drumming and Josh Fauver’s buoyant bassline propels the track forward with hypnotic determination.

‘Helicopter’ juxtaposes the album’s most transcendental and ethereal composition, laden with syrupy, dripping electronics and chirping acoustic guitar, against the harrowing words of a human-trafficked boy subjected to just about some of mankind’s worst atrocities. Consulting the liner notes reveals the lyrics are based on a fictional short story conceived by author Dennis Cooper. This acts as a testament to both Cox’s wide range of influences and interpretive story-telling prowess. For me, the tragedy and thematic bond of ‘Helicopter’ is in the heart-breaking depiction of someone who was used and discarded, whose only living traces lie in the vague fading memories of others.

Pundt’s ‘Fountain Stairs’ followed by penultimate track ‘Coronado’ work in tandem to create some of the most rhythmically powerful and animated moments of the album. As the introduction of ‘Coronado’ unravels, instruments promptly accumulate together bar by bar, eventually resulting in an impenetrably raucous chorus. By the end of the track, it feels like the band have scavenged and recorded just about every instrument in their studio onto the song – including a stunning saxophone performance courtesy of Bill Oglesby.

Ultimately, the album concludes by reflecting on time’s most unsettling ability: it’s ability to kill. The serene seven minute memoir ‘He Would Have Laughed’ is dedicated to deceased musician and friend of the band Jay Reatard. Its lyrics act both as a summary of the album’s themes and as the melancholic reminiscing of someone reflecting on their life and the dreams and friends they’ve made, and lost, along its course. In its last moments, the song euphorically opens up to a blissful panorama of synthesisers, delay feedback, and acoustic guitar, before snatching it all sharply away from the listener mid-phrase before it’s true resolution, leaving the listener suddenly in the silence of their own thoughts, a poignantly perfect analogy to death itself.

Halcyon Digest had a profound effect on me as a young teenager, drastically altering my music taste forever. Each time it ended, it left me breathless, sometimes weeping, in awe of the beauty, the strangeness, and the tragedy of it all. It’s an album to be experienced as a whole, front to back. There’s rarely a moment of silence between tracks, giving the whole thing a broadcast-like immediacy, and the message of the broadcast is clear: this is Deerhunter’s protest against our tendency as humans to amend and romanticise our memories and live in the halcyon haze of our own mind.