Deerhunter keeps going, and fast, shedding moves as soon as they’re perfected. Halcyon Digest, the Georgia band’s fifth full album in five years, is missing what recently seemed to be the band’s signature. There’s no evil, kraut-tinged rock-out to be found, no sudden gear-shift from sighing psychedelia to stomping psychosis. But even as the band swells to include the songwriting of guitarist/vocalist Lockett Pundt, their obsessions with melody and memory persist. So does an old-fashioned notion of sequencing an album in a thoughtful, transporting way. As quiet and as pretty as it is, Halcyon Digest feels both like a measured dodge of a "big statement" to follow 2008’s popular Microcastle, and one of the most perfectly realized autumn records in recent memory.
Pundt’s two credited songs, both better than any from his Lotus Plaza solo record, fit neatly into the band’s pre-established fog. He’s got a less expressive range than regular frontman Bradford Cox, but the timbre of their voices isn’t so far off—certainly more cohesive a switch than Spiral Stairs’ Pavement songs, or Stevie Jackson tracks on Belle and Sebastian albums. His songs are vaguely familiar, evoking a three-quarters-speed Strokes with "Desire Lines," singing a melody near Jackson’s "The Wrong Girl" on "Fountain Stairs." But amid a record of strange, spooked waltzes, these compact bits of songcraft are ballast, not anchor. As Cox continues to float towards his specific muse, Pundt might even become their secret weapon indie-pop dispenser.
The swooniest moments are Bradford’s, though. His pet themes remain lonely youths and impending death, refined here so that he’s become more encouraging to the former, and less macabre discussing the latter. "Come on kid! Keep your head up…" intones "Don’t Cry," softly. "Basement Scene" claws to the dingy club walls of youth, conflicted about whether or not to stay. Truly lovely singles "Revival" and "Helicopter" use surprisingly overt spiritual language, sounding every bit as enraptured as that tonal tweak suggests. The first radiates hope via jaunty guitars, the second cushions resigned dread with gorgeous atmosphere. "He Would Have Laughed" is perhaps the record’s most affecting commentary on loss. Cox’s elegy for good friend Jay Reatard eschews biopic schmaltz to present a conflicted picture of a mercurial guy, ending with a sweetly read but gruffly suggestive "shut your mouth" before it sadly, appropriately, cuts abruptly short.
Discussing the record’s title, Cox says he was again thinking of memory, of how we edit a mixture of ugly truth and beautiful daydream until they meld in an abridged recollection that better represents the life we wished we’d lived. Through talent and intent, Cox has cast himself alongside those great, blurry 4AD bands he spent his adolescence wishing he could befriend, mixing them up in his bittersweet, haunted youth. Moreso than their modern indie-scene contemporaries, his band seems swept up in punk’s classic conversation between noise and pop, darkness and light. Halcyon Digest finds them creeping ever-closer to pure sweetness, so extending the continued peak for the last great band left making what we once called alternative rock.