Every year it seems like I end up writing the same review for Bradford Cox’s newest record, be it labeled Deerhunter or Atlas Sound. He’s cut down on the derailing, ambient wander tracks. He’s valuing crisp revision and careful editing to counterbalance his persistent idea of a songwriter as a mere antenna receiving artistic muse-waves. It’s his best work yet! I always mean it, too. Cox’s continual development as an artist should maybe be a bigger story. His prolificacy has made us see every development in an exhaustively documented series of half-steps, making the strides he’s taken over the past five years seem milder. This is a man, remember, who’s released eight full-length records from two separate bands over that time span, plus countless EPs, digital EPs, digital albums, and one-off blog-post mp3s. No one is working faster at this level of quality.
Take a step back for a second and compare his first Atlas Sound record, 2008’s Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See but Cannot Feel, to his newest album, Parallax. His debut was a lonely, fragmented thing; Parallax sounds so rich and confident in comparison. Previously, his chilly tangents were excused because beautiful, 60s-haunted melodies would occasionally emerge. Current album-opener “The Shakes,” a neat narrative about a famous musician in decline, seems to keep blooming again and again from minor guitar tone adjustments. Captivation without the wait. And the inclusion of the gorgeous “Mona Lisa,” a standout from last winter’s free-download Bedroom Databank sessions, is a great surprise. Finishing the song with the pretty vocals and pillowy Belle and Sebastian-ish piano of MGMT’s Andrew Vanwyngarden is something that wouldn’t have happened three years ago. While I hesitate to measure this new set up to Deerhunter’s devastating Halcyon Digest, it’s the best Atlas Sound record. For sure.
The shifting sound of Cox’s voice is Parallax’s chief point of fascination. From the earliest, ugliest Deerhunter songs, he’s been a sculptor of harsh consonant sounds and the distorted trails they leave behind. On album highlight “Modern Aquatic Nightsongs,” he phrases the lovely, stoned-poetic question—“Is your love like a sunset chandelier?”—in such away that the s and ch sounds brush over the mix like a broom on dusty linoleum. (That song, which morphs from Odelay psychedelia to early-70s Bowie glam-folk, needs a Michel Gondry video so bad.) There are times during the title-track when it sounds like oxygen is being forcibly sucked from his body, only for him to recover, cooing sweet as a songbird. The record contains his least mopey, most expressive singing ever, probably. Has anyone ever restated the peculiar charms of Stereolab better than the loungey jazz-pop back-end of “Terra Incognita”? Cripes, listen to the “sha-la-la” bits on “Praying Man.” This is premium-grade mysterious pop crooner material. It may be tough to see the big picture now, but that slick Mick Rock cover photo might be a resonant piece of iconography one day. A pomaded troubadour, whispering sweet nothings to his microphone. A recording artist on some kind of crazy roll.