Eleven distinct songs that lock together into a single, singular, daydreamy groove. Or, to use a comparison, this is Deerhunter’s Future Days: less abrasive; more summery.
Whether this is better or not than Microcastle is a good debate: I’d say that none of these songs are able to match Microcastle’s highs (“Nothing Ever Happened” and “Saved by Old Times”), though Halcyon Digest forgoes that album’s middle stretch, which, as you know, was a bunch of polite nothings arranged in a suite to form one big nothing.
And no, good as Halcyon Digest’s answer to “Nothing Ever Happened,” “Desire Lines” is, it’s not as good as “Nothing Ever Happened”: this one basically reaches its climax (the ascending scales from 3:13-onwards, climbing their way to the sky and lingering there) and plateaus, whereas “Nothing Ever Happens” keeps going. That being said, enjoy the bass intro, which announces the song in the same way the harmonica does on the preceding “Memory Boy”; enjoy the backing vocals, like the spectre of a friend who you remember but doesn’t remember you; enjoy the “oh-oh” hook dispersed throughout the choruses, which achieves something catchier than anything on Fading Frontier – without sacrificing what we came to Deerhunter for in the first place.
Another debate is whether or not Halcyon Digest is better than Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, an album that came out the same year about the same suburban malaise. If you asked me five years ago, I would have said The Suburbs because the tunes were more immediate, but now, I’m inclined to say Halycon Digest: as Christgau noted his review of the album, Halcyon’s tunes slowly reveal themselves (whereas the tunes on The Suburbs revealed their hand immediately and slowly lose their repeat-value because they abandoned their usual crescendo-through-instruments approach). (Sorry Bradford, I know younger you never wanted to be compared to Arcade Fire.)
Unsurprisingly, the singles that aren’t “Desire Lines” or “Helicopter” – “Revival” and “Memory Boy” – are some the album’s slighter songs; both are riff-driven (a jangle guitar riff and the aforementioned harmonic, respectively) to leave an impression but not long enough to leave a lasting one. Of these two, “Memory Boy” is the better, lyrics that seem to chronicle a failed friendship (“That October, he came over every day / The smell of loose-leaf joints on jeans and we would play”) to a failed household (the play on “son” and “sun” in the song’s final verse).
Compare these to the album’s more ambitious and/or longer songs: the slowly-unraveling opener “Earthquake” whose electronic drums mimic the buzz if cicada wings on a summer night, the shronking saxophone of “Coronado” and Jay Reatard-tribute “He Would Have Laughed” which employs a lovely keyboard line (actually, between this, “Coronado” and “Helicopter,” the best thing about this album might be the keyboard lines) and a steady beat (great obtuse lyric: “I lived on a farm, yeah / I never lived on a farm”). And the album’s ballads, like “Sailing” and “Basement Scene” are sequenced perfectly (ie. after the punchier “Revival” and centerpiece “Desire Lines” respectively) such that neither break the album’s flow.
Oh, and “Helicopter”’s great: Bradford Cox’s voice harmonizing with the aforementioned keyboard might be the album’s prettiest ‘moment’, even if the lyrics are inspired by a really sad story of a Russian man forced to turn tricks at a young age, who eventually committed suicide.