Bradford Cox is, unmistakably, a profuse creator. His raging appetite for permuting the various DNA strands of his leading post-punk outfit, Deerhunter, proves an insatiable creature. Speaking in absolutes, the lifeblood of his very being is music. When he’s not reintroducing bygone subgenres of punk and psychedelia through Deerhunter (his devoted wife) or Atlas Sound (his downtown hotel-room mistress), he’s practically reinventing them. He’s also got a penchant for reinventing himself. Hell, minus the ubiquity, he’s feasibly this generation’s David Bowie — above all in the context of the various, androgynous personae he’s experimented with over the years.
As such, it bemoans me to come out on the other side of Parallax (4AD) feeling listless and rather … crestfallen. The above hosannas are more than this proletariat reviewer can say for the crux of indie musicians he stalks online (in the dark, of course) or admires in secret. Take, for instance, Cox’s previous self-produced iteration, the free-to-download Bedroom Databank, a four-album, lo-fi release of demos he magnanimously uploaded to his blog for all his lovelies (er, fans) to take an artistic bath in. In that same year (September 2010), Cox and his co-conspirators (Moses Archuleta, Josh Fauver, and Lockett Pundt) released Halcyon Digest, one of the least vainglorious albums I’ve had the pleasure of suffering through — only because it’s one of those rare, enviable records any self-respecting musician wishes they’d a hand in conceiving.
With Parallax, however, we have Atlas Sound’s most well-produced, least riveting LP to-date.
Now, before I’m scourged and crucified by an angry mob of Coxites (myself included), allow me to wax candidly: Personally, I prefer Cox’s solo-dishes served unorthodox, dyspeptic, difficult-to-swallow and relatively inaccessible. Part of me admits to that smelling of aesthetic masochism (and perhaps elitism, too).
Said masochism, though, is atypically germane to Atlas Sound’s, well, sound. That is to say, I enjoy indie pop as much as the next scenester, but with Atlas Sound, that equation is largely reversed. To me, Atlas Sound is a fringe exercise, an acquired taste — and that holds a lot of value, particularly in how it defines itself almost against Deerhunter’s “bigger,” lately-more-conventional sound.
Parallax arguably finds Cox straying steadily further from his avant-garde sensibilities and into predominantly straightforward, folk-pop territory. Too many aspects of this LP seem excessively safe-for-dad (I hate writing that as much as you hate reading it, trust me). I might have seen this coming, too. His 2009 solo release, Logos (Kranky), had demonstrated telltale signs of this shift toward grassroots songwriting a la Bob Dylan — notwithstanding the splendidly out-of-place “Walkabout” (with Noah Lennox of Animal Collective); “Quick Canal” (with Stereolab’s Laetita Sadier); or the playback loop-worthy “Kid Klimax.” While citing Dylan is an anecdotal stretch, Cox has gone as far as to openly cede to Dylan’s discography as a direct influence. Consider, for instance, Joe Colly’s November 2009 interview with Atlas Sound via Pitchfork.com, where Bradford reveals the process behind Logos:
I recorded “The Light That Failed” and “An Orchid” at the same time. The next thing on the tape after that is “Logos”, and “Logos” specifically is where I realized that there was a heavy, heavy Dylan influence going on. The day I recorded those first two songs, I went to see the Bob Dylan movie [I’m Not There] with a girlfriend and that put me in a Dylan headspace, I guess. When I got home I listened to a bunch of Dylan for an hour or two, smoked a pack of cigarettes, and I recorded “Logos” that night.
Still, Logos‘ breed of folktronica never once sacrificed Cox’s weirder, darker, or experimental raison d’être. There was much of Atlas Sound’s 2008 pariah-angst in 2009. Here, I’m specifically referring to his best work, Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel (Kranky; 2008), one of the most brazenly expressive, honest, daring records I’ve heard since Kid A (yeah, I said that).
Parallax, conversely, feels like a logical extension of Halcyon Digest‘s more watery, loopy, slow acoustic-burners (the sub-aquatic interstices between its bigger dopamine anthems). I’m thinking of “Earthquake,” “Sailing,” “Helicopter,” and “He Would Have Laughed.” In Parallax, Halcyon Digest‘s cousins speak from “Amplifiers”; “Te Amo”; “Modern Aquatic Nightsongs”; the infectious “Mona Lisa” (likely Cox’s most unabashed pop yet); “Praying Man” (a personal favorite); “Angel is Broken”; and “Terra Incognita”. Engendering these are glittering harp-like acoustic loops, repetitive verse-cum-bridges, and catchy one-offs.
But fret not, fans.
Cox’s ability to craft caressing melodies; fashion unique, razor-thin vocals and airy falsettos; write refreshingly tendril, tender lyrics; and juxtapose flamboyantly unusual arrangements is not absent here. He is certainly disciplined enough to know that his official LP releases must follow a cohesive outline (as opposed to the scatterbrained abandon of his Bedroom Databank).
Yet, I can’t help but react to Parallax‘s patient, acoustic (sometimes weirdly Celtic) burners with an underwhelmed palate (i.e., “Flagstaff”). There is a classroom-monotony to this album that may cause members of the uninitiated to snooze, particularly in between its peacock singles (“The Shakes,” “Parallax,” “Mona Lisa,” and “Praying Man”). Parallax‘s wealth of wallflower-tracks require a good deal of patience and repeated listens before they coyly emerge from the pattern-play and greet your attention. Even then, as I step back to reflect on the material, I have a hard time recalling its standout moments.
Cox, no doubt, is an unusual talent, and that remains ever-present in this warm, hazy show. Unfairly, I hold him up to a sky-scraping standard — a standard he inadvertently set for himself. In Parallax, Cox seemingly condenses certain properties of his bigger, ensemble predecessor (Halcyon Digest) — and there’s nary a faux pa there. The above caveats, unfortunately, stand — as there is more “refinement” here than there is “reinvention.” For those of us who have been following Atlas Sound, Parallax is the cleaner-cut, better-produced outcome of a natural, gradual progression from Cox’s indietronic, experimental work in 2008 — the latter of which I prefer. To newcomers, I suggest beginning with Atlas Sound’s least accessible work (from left to right), before falling prey to Cox’s hooking Parallax opener, “The Shakes;” which — I confess — is probably bad advice.