Anniverseries: Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest

For a time, Deerhunter were the pinnacle of indie rock music, at least in critical terms. On fifth studio album Halcyon Digest, they found a perfect storm of catchy, confusing, immersive, and experimental. A decade to the day since its release, let's revisit the universally lauded album which pinpoints when indie got eerie.
Posted: 28 September 2020 Words: Tom Curtis-Horsfall

A decade ago, Bradford Cox, Deerhunter lead singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist was at the apex of the indie music zeitgeist. Four respected albums under his belt as part of Deerhunter, as well as two albums as his solo moniker Atlas Sound, Pitchfork darling Cox was certainly perceived to possess the Midas touch. A departure from the stadium-sized bands such as Arcade Fire or The National, not as 'wtf' as Swans, or vitriolic as Nine Inch Nails (who certainly aren't 'indie', but Trent Reznor had invited the band on tour with them around this time, hence the connection), Deerhunter stood alone in their own distinct, experimental space within the indie music genre. The question was, that could they transform critical adoration into mainstream success? And if so, what would that even sound like? Well, it sounded like Halcyon Digest, one of the defining indie rock albums of the last decade.

From a personal perspective, they were the band - with this album specifically - that dragged my head out of the retro-rock sand and back into contemporary music, such was my teenage distain toward nu-rave nonsense and 'landfill' indie that clogged up publications at the time. Deerhunter were, at least in my mind, the antithesis of Britain's indie scene and all the more alluring for it.

Formed in Atlanta, Georgia in 2001, and founded by Cox and drummer Moses Archuleta, Deerhunter didn't really find their feet until the acquisition of Cox's long-time friend Lockett Pundt who joined as a secondary guitarist and songwriter. After the acclaim received after albums number two (Cryptograms) and three (Microcastle), Deerhunter established themselves as discordant and prolific craftsmen, marrying avant-garde soundscapes with garage rock ideals, capable of combusting into drawn out on-stage exploration and jamming. Putting the eerie into indie.

By no means were they the only band at the time who merged poppier indie sensibilities with oddball experimentation - see Animal Collective's 2009-defining Merryweather Post Pavilion - but Deerhunter showed that guitar bands were still more than capable in creating something equally unexpected, accessible, and immersive. 

Halcyon Digest distilled the band's collaborative creative powers, and offered a glimpse into their trajectory as a bonafide force of 2010's guitar music. Saccharine melodies and cascading lead guitar parts all present, each track a statement unto itself, distancing themselves from the lo-fi ambient punk trappings of previous albums, and avoiding the formulaic compositions of their indie rock peers. Of course, it was by no means a complete departure from their previous work - often slow-burners to those unaccustomed to Deerhunter’s haunting reverb-laden layers and sonic spasms - but Deerhunter successfully created a deceptively experimental album wrapped in a welcoming, poppier package, all before Ariel Pink's 'out there' aesthetic was widely accepted, and Mac DeMarco's homemade music became commonplace on the indie music spectrum.  

As with most seminal albums, the deeper you dive, the more you're rewarded; 'Desire Lines', often considered their finest track was my first exposure to Deerhunter. A thumping power chord riff and classic verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure (with even a 'woah' thrown in the chorus for more indie points) throughout the track's first section is all well and good, but nothing spectacular or deserving of the hype, in my personal humble opinion I thought. But then comes the meandering, proggy, almost four-minute outro, all languid lead notes, foggy effects pedals, and a dense rhythm section driving into a final fade out. Then, it truly clicked. As I'm sure was the case with specific, millennial age group given the band's plaudits around that era. 

'Desire Lines' was also indicative of the band's collaborative spirit with Pundt taking lead singer and songwriting duties on the track, similarly to 'Fountain Stairs'. Sharing more of an equal footing gave Halcyon Digest different textures, though ever-outspoken and all-round adored Cox was never not the band's focal point - his stream-of-consciousness creative style lent a subjective and mysterious quality, where Pundt's emo-leaning writing certainly felt more traditionally 'indie'. 

Unpredictability is at the album's core, which was in short supply if you paid attention to indie rock at the time. Drawn from his affection for Exile On Main Street despite the instrument being objectively uncool or a cardinal sin within indie music, Cox felt the missing piece to 'Coronado' was a saxophone solo; 'Basement Scene' was supposedly recorded on a 4-track; 'He Would Have Laughed' two tracks virtually spliced into one to bookend the album; the hook to lead single 'Revival' sounds like a banjo. Even the straight-up weird artwork harks back to the age of albums when you were given no insight to on first glance, so are taking a risk of sort when purchasing at the record shop. A risk that I know now safely paid off. 

Having been so prolific to this point, several lineup disruptions meant follow-up album Monomania wouldn't hit airwaves until 2013, by which time their mainstream popularity waned with many outside their immediate fanbase feeling as though they'd hit a critical roof. Personally, I wouldn't say that's the case, but Halcyon Digest most definitely signifies a point in contemporary music where risk equalled reward. 

Revered by indie, psychedelic, avant-garde, and dream pop artists aplenty, Halcyon Digest's influence is vast, albeit difficult to pinpoint. I guess that's what makes it such an excellent album and has seen it's unconventional legacy endure for the past decade. And it will do for decades to come, no doubt.

To hear more from Deerhunter, click here.

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