For a long time now, I have had something of a strained relationship with the music of Bradford Cox. When his band Deerhunter released their breakthrough second album Cryptograms in 2007, its spellbinding collision of sun-damaged ambient noise and post-punk-pop hooks felt like a truly vital new group finding its feet. His solo debut, Let The Blind Lead Those Who See But Cannot Feel, released the following year under the Atlas Sound moniker, was equally impressive; showcasing his compositional, performance and production skills – using just a guitar, keyboards and primitive electronics to make minimalist tone poems one minute and recreate the sound of a full-band Krautrock jam the next – the album marked Cox out not only as the driving creative force behind his band, but also as a hugely prolific, singular talent who wasn’t afraid to wear his influences (sixties pop, girl groups, shoegaze, techno etc) or his heart on his sleeve.
It didn’t take long, however, for the excitement to wear off. Cox’s fondness for giving away new tracks – recorded with his bandmates or on his own – via his website on what seemed like a daily basis suggested that his output’s quantity/ quality balance was slightly off, and when Deerhunter’s third long-player, Microcastle, emerged to pretty much universal acclaim in 2008, my personal overriding impression was a feeling of frustration at the fact an album with so many brilliant tunes kept having its momentum broken by half-formed, meandering song-sketches. Cox’s outspoken, sickly social outcast persona, meanwhile, had started to grate, and when Atlas Sound’s sophomore effort Logos took the hazy, abstract element of his sound to the extreme, sacrificing the traditional idea of properly structured songs almost entirely, I decided that it would probably be for the best if Bradford and I went our separate ways.
But for an unrepentant music junkie like myself, all it takes is a couple of glowing reviews to tempt a relapse, and when Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest started generating excited critical chatter last year, I went crawling back. I had to admit this was a great album; one that still suffered from the odd passage of aimless guitar strumming, but that nonetheless restored my faith in Cox and company considerably. All of which brings us round to Parallax, Cox’s latest Atlas Sound outing. The first preview from the album, “Terra Incognita”, appeared online a month or so back and – to be frank – left me scratching my head: the song’s spaced-out sci-fi Beach Boys climax is, admittedly, pretty spectacular, but it requires the listener to sit through five minutes of ambient build-up before it arrives. Which way was Cox going to go this time: fascinating or frustrating?
Well, much to my relief, Parallax is – in my opinion – the most fully-realized exploration of Cox’s musical world to date. The album is divided fairly equally into upbeat alt-rock songs and more experimental, borderline ambient pieces, but the latter are generally more focused than previous efforts and smart sequencing means that, for the most part, styles and tempos vary from one track to the next. If you’ve heard harpsichord-driven second single “Te Amo”, you’ll have already noticed a new-found confidence in Cox’s voice, and this conviction is evident in every aspect of the album, from the uncharacteristically vain Mick Rock portrait that adorns the cover to the swooning harmonies of summery opener “The Shakes” or the country-tinged swagger of “Praying Man”. Even those songs that take longer to unfurl, like piano piece “Doldrums” or “Modern Aquatic Nightsongs” pulse and swell like grand, cinematic statements – albeit more David Lynch than David Lean.
Best of all, the album is home to some of Cox’s finest pop songs. “Mona Lisa” and “My Angel Is Broken” both mine ‘60s psych and the sugary fuzz of ‘80s indie, with their clattering, motorik drums and the latter’s clanging minor-key riff a welcome nod to Deerhunter’s earlier, darker tendencies. Even its weirder moments – “Amplifiers”’ queasy, dope-sick acoustic guitar take on the classic “My Girl” riff, or the way the title track feels like it’s being sucked backwards through an airlock before bursting into a sweet pop melody – are the kind of curious earworms that will nag away at your subconscious for days afterwards. It isn’t a perfect record: penultimate track “Flagstaff”, with its entirely unnecessary ambient noodling, outstays its welcome by about five minutes, leaving closer “Nightworks” somewhat out in the cold. Overall, though, Parallax is a huge achievement, and a timely reminder of a considerable talent; Cox might not be quite the star he thinks he is, but on the evidence presented here, I’m much more inclined to believe the hype.
Download: “Terra Incognita” http://promo.4ad.com/atlassound/downloads/terraincognita.mp3
Parallax is out November 8th on 4AD