It was Spacemen 3 that coined the phrase “taking drugs to make music to take drugs to”, and given that everybody these days seems to be on something, Atlanta, GA’s Deerhunter, appear to have taken that statement to heart, albeit in a more functional, prescribed way. To completely understand the disassociated environment that Deerhunter’s music exists in, it would be interesting to find out what it is that sustains them. A musical pharmacopeia Halcyon Digest isn’t, but the fact that ‘Halcion’ is drug prescribed to treat anxiety and insomnia hasn’t gone entirely unnoticed either.
2008’s Microcastle [review] staked its place as one of the great albums of the decade, one that effortlessly summed up what Deerhunter were — a collision of Pavement’s laconic lo-fi flutters and My Bloody Valentine’s expressways to your skull, all fed by Cox’s recurring themes of paranoia and persecution. Halcyon Digest is no different. But if you were to map the chronology of Microcastle to Halcyon Digest, it would be necessary to include Logos [review], the second album from Cox’s side project Atlas Sound as a direct influence and a necessary part of the puzzle.
As shimmering the exterior of opener “Earthquake” is, little disguises Cox seemingly sleeptalking through the song over a slo-mo looped rhythm. The lucid calm of the track is shaken with the warm fuzz of acoustic stomp “Don’t Cry” which itself falls asleep in a heap at the end via more of Cox’s sleep murmurs. Chosen as the lead single “Revival” is more reminiscent of the band’s previous Rainwater Cassette Exchange EP with its cascading chords and harmonies that draw you in. “Memory Boy”, along with guitarist Lockett Pundt’s “Desire Lines”, strengthen the ‘pop core’ of the album. It’s on these tracks (along with Pundt’s Mary Chain channelling “Fountain Stairs”) where the full band are engaged do the effect of Halcyon Digest truly kick in.
The amiable sing-song “Basement Scene” borrows from both the Everly Brothers and Cox’s own “Shelia” from Atlas Sound’s Logos. Its playful melody is hard to dislike but the track verges on throwaway and Cox’s recurring themes of waking up/getting old/doing drugs begin to feel redundant. It’s here and on the hallucinating haze of “Helicopter” that Deerhunter’s world begins to collapse in on itself . Its list-less loop, the pitter-patter of keys and Cox’s whiney “Oh these drugs, they play on me these terrible ways/they don’t pay like they used to pay” give a sense of ground already covered, albeit eight miles high.
Conversely, on the epic Jay Reatard dedicated “He Would Have Laughed”, the lyrics aren’t so self-plagiarizing, and while the layers are added, so too the depths of Cox’s search for answers. “I get bored as I get older/can you help me figure this out?”. Having recorded a split-single with Jay Reatard for Sub Pop, Reatard’s untimely passing is cause for introspection from the loss of another great musician from drug and alcohol abuse. Following in the steps of the mighty Microcastle was ultimately going to be a hard task. Despite a sense of deja-vu, Halcyon Digest is a still conscious step forward for Deerhunter.