Bradford Cox today barely resembles the noise-making, dress-wearing art fiend of a performer that helmed Deerhunter four years ago. He’s still making music with Deerhunter, and that music is still occasionally noisy, but Cox’s sonic journey has brought him farther away from abstract ambience and abrasion and much closer to blissful pop melodies in recent years. His two bands, Deerhunter and Atlas Sound, initially began with different objectives but with their staggered, gradual releases, have taken nearly parallel paths. Though his trajectory with Atlas Sound isn’t nearly as dramatic as that of Deerhunter between Cryptograms‘ post-punk dissonance and Halcyon Digest‘s dream pop ecstasy, Cox has still shown a steady and increasingly impressive progression toward simple yet sonically stunning pop, reaching a new climax of sorts with Parallax.
Much of Parallax feels like an extension of its predecessor, the trippy, albeit upbeat Logos. However, Parallax contains neither a track as kaleidoscopic and fuzzy as “Walkabout,” nor as heady and hypnotic as “Quick Canal.” It does however, contain a dozen splendid pop numbers, many of them in the vein of that album’s “Shelia,” or even Deerhunter’s “Revival.” This is not a radical reinvention but a refinement of the best qualities displayed on Atlas Sound’s previous two records, yielding a pop record with all of the hazy dreaminess of its predecessors, but even stronger melodies.
A song like “The Shakes” likely takes its name from its head-bopping percussion than any kind of jittery nervousness, because Cox’s footing has never seemed steadier than it is here. A gorgeous, concise guitar-pop gem, it opens the record with the kind of bright and buoyant melody that might have previously been buried with heavier doses of electronics or effects. Not that Cox doesn’t still dabble in rack-mount alchemy: “Amplifiers” features its share of electronic squawks, “Modern Aquatic Nightsongs” lives up to its name with bubbling oceanic effects, and there are some heavy doses of delay on the electric piano sounds of “Doldrums.”
Parallax is often at its most interesting when Cox allows the melodies to shine brighter than their production embellishments. “Te Amo” is certainly made gorgeous by all of the dreamy adornments that fill up its surreal spaces, but the piano hook itself is an escalating wonder, bested only by Cox’s unusually expressive vocals. A couplet like “And we will go to sleep/ and we’ll have the same dream” when delivered subtly could be typical indie rock pomo fare, but with the power in Cox’s voice, it comes across as more oddly profound. The Spaghetti Western garage sounds of “Parallax” are somewhat more detached, but rich in sublime melodies. The same goes for “Mona Lisa,” which boasts the most immediately arresting chorus on the album. And on the six-minute-long “Terra Incognita,” Cox enters a much more tender realm, his gentle acoustic guitar plucks serving as a backdrop for more open-hearted statements such as “I know a place called love.”
In half a decade, Bradford Cox has made an impressive evolution as a songwriter, and, perhaps even more impressively, he’s done so with two different bands, with different but equally impressive results. Even on an album like Deerhunter’s Cryptograms, Cox revealed an innate ability to craft breathtaking pop music, and Parallax is the result of that raw talent given time to simmer and open up its bouquet. This is artful pop music worth savoring.
Stream: Atlas Sound – “Te Amo”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.