Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest: Round 72 – Tom’s Selection

download (1)Lacking inspiration for the notoriously difficult Round 72 I turned to the painfully untrendy Pitchfork website for help. Specifically their top 100 albums of the last five years list (aka Look Everyone, We’ve Got a New List. You Will Not Be Able To Resist A Skim Through and That Will Make Our Site Stats Look Much Better).

I thought I would take the highest placed album on the list that I own. And this is it. To make matters even more enticing, it’s an album I have never really got to grips with, always finding it some way off the brilliance that so many claim it possesses. To make matters even more enticing than that(!), it’s an album (and a band) that I know Rob loves, so I was fully expecting something akin to born again conversion to occur. Surely, I thought, if both Rob and Pitchfork think so highly of this album (Pitchfork rated it the third best of the last five years – that’s third best out of a hell of a lot of records), a careful listen whilst someone points out to me just what it is that I have been missing all this time will be all it takes. Unfortunately, it turns out that Nick’s arguments as to why Halcyon Digest isn’t such a great piece of work were more convincing, aligning as they do far more closely with mine and, as a result, I am probably further away than ever to understanding just what it is that makes this album so special.

Now I don’t want to give the impression that Halcyon Digest is a poor piece of work. It’s not at all. But, to me, it is deeply flawed. There are wonderful songs on Halcyon Digest (Helicopter stands out), there are good songs with outstanding bits to them (Desire Lines, Fountain Stairs), there are other good songs that are simply good all the way through (Earthquake, Coronado) but, to my ears at least, there are just too many clunkers here (Don’t Cry, Revival, Basement Scene) for this to attain anything even approaching classic status.

Thinking about Deerhunter in general and Halcyon Digest in particular, my biggest problem comes down to Bradford Cox’s way (or, rather, lack of way) with melody. Sure, an album doesn’t have to be packed full of soaring melodies to be a classic, but an album of well defined, discrete, guitar based tunes, surely needs to do better than this – too often on Halcyon Digest the pace is leaden, the tunes are predictable and the songs mumble their way through to a wholly unsatisfactory conclusion.

But the most frustrating aspect of all is just how close Cox is to producing a truly outstanding record. The guitar work on Halcyon Digest is remarkable – Cox can obviously make his guitar sing in ways that are far more affecting than his vocal chords – and the lyrics are never less than interesting. The second half of the album (once the execrable Basement Scene has been negotiated) is very good indeed and Helicopter has to be up amongst the best songs of the last few years. When he is good (it was the same for me with Microcastle and Weird Era Cont), Cox is very very good but…rather like the little girl with the curl in the middle of the forehead…when he is bad, he is horrid. And, unfortunately, from now on I can’t see anyone, be they Pitchfork, Rob or Bradford Cox himself, convincing me otherwise.

Nick listened: I bought Halcyon Digest as my ‘Christmas album’ back in 2010, and I quite like it. But I can’t go any further than that, and I’m absolutely baffled by the fact that some people, presumably, think it’s masterpiece enough that it ended up third in Pitchfork’s ‘decade so far’ list. (But I hate their number 1 choice, so, y’know, horses for courses.)

(As an aside I recall a similar list by Select Magazine in 1995, wherein they anointed Screamadelica, which I bought pretty much because of that list, and fell in love with.)

I’m baffled because Halcyon Digest doesn’t feel like a statement, a discovery, a platonic essence, or a perfectly crafted artefact to me; it just feels like ‘quite a good indie rock record’. Which isn’t a bad thing, I just don’t generally think of quite good indie rock records as being worth the plaudits they often get lauded with – see The Suburbs by Arcade Fire as another album I just do not understand the praise for; a few nice songs, a couple of them very nice indeed, but caught up in so much generic plodding that I can’t get excited about it.

Maybe it’s the genre-snob in me; I could accept the power and pleasure of a really generic soul record or dance record or jazz record, perhaps, but ‘indie rock’ feels like such a brown genre to me (in that it sucks in so many colourful influences but often ends up becoming a smear of brown rather than the rainbow it clearly wants to be) that, as much as I can enjoy it, it usually fails to transcend unless it does something dramatically creative or unusual or with really staggering perfection. Halcyon Digest just feels so utterly ‘quite good’ to me that I can’t imagine anyone feeling that passionately about it. Whereas, much as I dislike it, I can kind of understand the admiration for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, even though I think it’s wrong.

Rob listened: And so it falls to me to quite like this record. And that’s fine. Tom, I reject your request for a guided conversion. If Deerhunter don’t click with you then that’s fine by me, fine for you and, one presumes, fine by them too. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t adequately explain what I find so beguiling about this band and, probably, this record in particular. It’s a mercurial property, seen in glimpses, flashes of elemental purity. In fact, let’s call it alchemy. For what Deerhunter do so magically, is take the building blocks of outsider rock and roll, from Bill Haley to My Bloody Valentine by way of the Stooges, the Velvet Underground, Modern Lovers and the Jesus and Mary Chain, and stack them up to create something new, some delightful structure built from uncannily familiar parts.

It’s an instinctive conjuring trick, producing perfectly balanced creations, made with careful precision by savants trusting their guts. Part of its ticklishness is the opacity of the intent. Is this deliberate pastiche, or are they really channeling 50 years of heads down clamour? Is it knowing, or dumb? Ultimately, is it good? The answer, for me, is yes. Very. It brings together strands and sounds and stances and knits them into shapes old enough to fire sense memories and new enough to be untraceable. Deerhunter are the first breath of cold air you feel in your eyes and throat before you know that autumn is coming. Always familiar, always different.

There are, it has to be said, at least 16 records in the Pitchfork list that I would choose ahead of Halcyon Digest.


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