With six full-length records, several EPs and dozens of freely distributed leftovers to dissect, distinctions between the overlapping aesthetics of Cox's main projects have begun to emerge. His 2008 solo debut as Atlas Sound, Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel, was frustrating, thinly sketched at times and painfully intimate throughout. Without the secret weapon of Deerhunter's rhythm section, he was deprived of some of his key songwriting tricks, most notably the ability to summon mean Teutonic grooves with the merest sigh. In lieu of menace, there was plenty of desolation. When he felt like strapping on a bass, the resulting songs shaped up with a lovely, lovesick Motown bounce. But the sweetness of the record's edges let people gloss over the incredibly cold, alienating fragments of its interior. Of course, while everyone else was busy sussing this out, he was already deep into the recording of Deerhunter's best record, Microcastle, its briefly secret companion piece, Weird Era Cont., and Atlas Sound's full-length follow-up, Logos.
An early sketch of Logos was leaked to the Internet along with Weird Era Cont. in one of the summer of 2008's grand Internet snits. Though the tracklist and flow of that version suggests that Cox was well on his way to figuring it all out, the public airing of the unmastered demos obviously altered what the record would come to be. Cox is unusually open about his songwriting process, frequently posting alternate versions and quickly captured demos, but he's also dedicated to the idea of a record as a thoughtful progression of songs. With so much free material floating around, and his livelihood depending on it, he has an unusually urgent incentive to raise his game for physical releases. With his album spoiled and half-dressed, he considered scrapping it for good. Instead, he took its songs out on the road just as Deerhunter began to truly flourish. That band's rapid ascension let Cox commingle with musical heroes and open himself up to concerns beyond drawn blinds and the ghosts of teenage dread. In its final form, Logos is the sound of a lifelong oddball beginning to feel welcome in the outside world.
Of course, with a penchant for delayed gratification befitting a showman or a sadist, Cox takes his time. Album opener "The Light That Failed," is a pretty sigh of a song that just crawls and crawls. It resembles one of Let the Blind's doodles, made more beautiful to excuse its ambling. "An Orchid" has the strummy swoon of one of his standout blog posts (for the superfans: it's got a similar lilt to "For All the Lonely Teenagers with Passed Out Moms"), but, despite layers of chiming guitar texture, it never quite congeals into a memorable refrain. At its dawn, Logos seems marred by the same unfinished quality that held back its predecessor.
In context, the following "Walkabout" sounds surprising still, despite the saturating euphoria with which the Web embraced it. Cox had noted his desire to escape introspection with his new material, to get outside of his fallback lyrical tropes of death and desire, and this duet with Animal Collective's Noah "Panda Bear" Lennox makes good on the intent. It's the sunniest track Cox has ever been associated with, trying on AC's thematic preoccupation with stability and maturity, arguing for forward-looking proactivity over a breezy beat and organ sample. He sublimates his own personality again later with "Quick Canal," a temple built to Stereolab, with high-priestess Laetitia Sadier herself sitting on its throne. An artist with a personal aesthetic as cultivated as Sadier's could hardly sound like anyone but herself, but Cox basically wrote a Stereolab song first, befriended his idols, and then completed it in the most logical manner possible. It's outside of no one's comfort zone, but it's undeniably swell. The song does interpret his kraut influences as effectively as he ever has in the absence of maniac Deerhunter bassist Josh Fauver, though much more gently.
There are superlative tracks scattered throughout the rest of Logos that don't feel like a game of dress-up. "Shelia" is so direct and nakedly constructed that the buoyant hugeness of its melody defies intricate description. Its chorus, which burrows into your head instantly, like a childhood toy jingle, returns to Cox's familiar motifs of love and decay, but transmutes them until they're almost sweet. "No one wants to die alone," he coos, "let's die alone together." That's grim on its surface, but the way Cox sells it, it comes across as a romantic ode to dedication rather than a cynical swearing off of possible connection. "Criminals" is a sweet waltz with a dark and puzzling lyrical subtext. "Attic Lights" is another night crawler, though given more variation by graceful violin flourishes courtesy Sasha Vine from the Sian Alice Group.
Billed in advance by Cox as an album of first takes, Logos still has its rough edges, its repetitive wanderings that achieve atmosphere but not ignition. There are times when the mostly fragile Atlas Sound material feels wanting for lack of that higher, adrenal gear that Deerhunter can so effortlessly flick on and off. But Cox's art is improving all the time, even when he could stand a bit of revision. There's little doubt that he'll surpass this stuff soon. In all probability, he already has.
Bradford Cox's latest incarnation, Atlas Sound, is set to play one of this year's most highly anticipated CMJ shows, October 20th at (Le) Poisson Rouge.