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First Listen: Deerhunter, 'Halcyon Digest'

Most artists find their voice after many years of repetition and trial and error. In the case of Bradford Cox, the enigmatic mastermind behind the music of Deerhunter, it took only a few incredibly prolific years. Whether with Deerhunter or under his solo moniker Atlas Sound, Cox has grown increasingly assured of his musical vision: The melodies are stronger, the lyrics more direct but not obvious, the tiny flourishes fully imagined. So it's hardly surprising that with its fourth album, Halcyon Digest, Deerhunter has made its most approachable record yet.

Like its predecessors — Deerhunter's Microcastle and Atlas Sound's Logos — the first thing that jumps out on Halcyon Digest is how it sounds. Nearly every minute is gorgeously textured, with ominous clusters of found sound and shimmering instrumentation that feels like microscopic synapses firing off inside your head. Where all of those murky layers and laptop experimentation could have once told the whole story, they now fill the periphery of truly memorable songs. There's newfound clarity to the songwriting, which strikes just the right balance between noisy adventurism and pop immediacy.

The band — rounded out by guitarist Lockett Pundt, bassist Joshua Fauver and drummer Moses Archuleta — slowly eases in with the rising tide of "Earthquake," a song darkly shellacked in guttural mumbles, bit-crunched vocal fragments and a transfixing guitar pattern. But soon, Deerhunter gives way to the speaker-blown garage rock of "Don't Cry," as well as "Desire Lines," a throttling shoegazer anthem which erupts with cathartic distortion.

Deerhunter also displays a mastery over neo-psychedelic '60s pop in the two-minute bursts of "Revival" and "Memory Boy," complete with sterling harmonies, chimes and clanging guitars. In these moments, the band is at its sunniest and most musically energetic.

Cox's lyrics have opened up, as well. While his songs have always been autobiographical, they've often been painfully if not disturbingly introverted — they implicitly work through and deal with his health issues, personal insecurities and neuroses. Traces of that will likely always remain in his music, but now he's approaching it unmasked, as he gazes outward toward universal themes of loneliness, compassion and acceptance of limitations.

In the haunting and impassioned lament "Sailing," Cox sings, "Only fear can make you feel lonely out here / You learn to accept whatever you can get." Elsewhere, in "Helicopter," he laments, "No one cares for me, I keep no company / I have minimal needs and now they are through with me."

Still, for such a peculiar complex figure, Bradford Cox has been one of the most reliably compelling musicians around. More impressively, after all this time, Deerhunter has hit its sweet spot with Halcyon Digest — the work of a band that just keeps getting better.

Hear Halcyon Digest in its entirety until its release on Sept. 28. Please leave your thoughts on the album in the comments section below.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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