Halcyon Digest, Deerhunter’s latest opus, offers a muted reminder of effervescent childhood followed by resignation to tedious adulthood. For what it’s worth, Deerhunter delivers a melancholic memorial, a tale of growing old, facing reality and the dreary acceptance of circumstance.
The title track “Earthquake” rolls over the audience in a fog. Washed-out melodies float through space as vocalist Bradford Cox’s cooing words are lost in the obscurity. A simple drum machine backs the echoing guitar riff that makes up the instrumentation. This lo-fi style (a term describing a simple recording style which adds a vintage quality to contemporary music) evokes the memories that the band delves into throughout the album. This invitation into the album hooks the audience, invites them into the nostalgia of Halcyon Digest.
The combination of the songs “Don’t Cry” and “Revival” follow “Earthquake,” painting bright images of childhood memories on bouncing folk beats, reminiscent of a sort of post-grunge R.E.M. set. Finger-picked mandolin is strung out between both songs, adding to the exuberance of childhood and to that signature sound that Deerhunter employs to capture the beauty of walking down autumnal streets and the adolescent fear of the future. The album transitions with the short track “Sailing.” At 18 seconds, this song evokes teenage garage-band rehearsals, a reflection of that eternal youth epitomized in the first half of the album.
The next song, “Memory Boy,” presents the rebellion of teenage years, the dreams and memories that fuel change. Cox sings, “It’s not a house anymore,” reflecting the loss of identity in the past. It is the realization that your house is no longer your home, and the awkward reflection on the memories of the past, and the “joints on jeans” and playing in the October streets. You try to look back, but it’s unrecognizable. It is but a memory. You look forward and fear the fast approaching monotony of adulthood, the nuances of life and the dreams – always just out of reach.
Stylistically, “Memory Boy” and “Desire Lines,” the following song, use jangling maraca rhythms and pop-punk guitar riffs to project the ebullience of adolescence and young adulthood, the combination of invincibility and fear of the unknown. While the style of songs has changed, the vocals still reverberate and fade away, suggesting the erasure of the past in the folds of the future.
The lo-fi sound returns in “Basement Scene,” where it replaces the forward momentum of the previous songs with the post-grunge sound of the rest of the album. The synthesizer and studio editing are increasingly layered onto the mandolin and guitar parts that filled the first half of the album. Here Cox protests age, growing old; the lo-fi quality of the track adds to the fading glory aspect of “Basement Scene.” Though the glory fades, Cox insists on “waking up” from this dream of childhood and adolescence, from the illusion that he had created for himself in the melancholic utopia of nostalgia. He wishes to throw off the past and wake up into the world of reality, even as he fears aging. He does not want to be forgotten. Somewhere, someplace, he wants to believe “they know me.”
The three tracks before the final song, “Helicopter,” “Fountain Stairs” and “Coronado” wrap up the album in an embittered resignation to the reality of adulthood. Fears of being forgotten are realized as the reality of life drives the camaraderie and company of adolescence apart. However, Cox remains fixed on the dreams of the past, and “Coronado” leaves the artist heartbroken. These final songs make use of heavy studio editing layered onto the simpler beats in the earlier half of the album. “Helicopter” is backed up with a slow simmering sound, growing in a way that imitates the gradual boiling of water. Toward the very end of the song, “Coronado” finally embraces the “maturity” of reality, employing saxophone to suggest the embrace of older music forms and accepted traditions. This is the last stage in the cycle, and for Cox, the hardest to accept.
If Halcyon Digest is Deerhunter’s opus, then the final track is its magnum opus. “He Would Have Laughed,” at an impressive length of 7:29 minutes, pays homage to the life of a man who has passed on. The same beat of the drum that filled “Earthquake” is heard once more, this time layered upon harpsichord, synth, guitar and studio-edited sounds, resulting in a masterful orchestra to reach the climax of a life. The acceptance of reality, including the material drive to succeed, has left the narrator that Cox sings about as a selfish individual who enjoys the sweetness reaped upon the suffering of others. Though this is the final cry of a man who resigned himself to a mundane reality, he still cries out to dream on and never relinquish the hopes of childhood.