2 Feb 2011

Halcyon Narcosis: Deerhunter and the Darkness Beneath

The more I listen to Deerhunter's Halcyon Digest, the more I'm convinced that it's haunted. As I familiarise myself with each track, so I'm sure that I can perceive the same shadowy presence beneath the surface of each. Reading around online reviews today, I wanted to see if anyone else sensed this presence as much as I do, and I was fairly surprised to find myself quite alone in my interpretation. And yet I can't shake it - the face that I can just see in my mind's eye (or ear), printed deep beneath each track, gains clarity with each new hearing. It is all the more convincing because, for me, this pervasive face which keeps flashing or flickering out of focus seems to hold the record together, and to provide the clues to why the album seems so much more than a 'celebration' of Bradford Cox's real and imagined memories. However the band may have wished to have constructed their latest album, the whole thing was built on a grave site from the start.


'The last public Dima sighting was late that year when his friend Ignat Lebedev...accompanied a client to a private sex club where he claims to have witnessed a very thin and confused-looking Dima being forcibly sodomized by a group of perhaps ten to fifteen men.'

The headstone of the grave in question, onto which this face was first projected, is etched into the centre of the black-and-white bulletin sheet which constitutes the album's liner notes. In columns of patchwork fonts, which suggest a catalogue of magic tricks at the back of an old comic book, or a flyer for a freakshow at a Victorian circus, the band have printed in full an article, part obituary, part police report, which in reality is a short story by Dennis Cooper. In eerily credible reportage, it tells the 'true' horror story a Russian boy named Dima, who pursues a career in fashion by granting sexual favours, and ends up as an underage pornstar, prostitute and finally a sex-slave. Dima's story becomes vague as he is lost in the impenetrable world of Russian organised crime, and the account ends with some speculative reports of his death at the age of 20. This story dominates the bulletin sheet, as much for its incongruity and its extreme tragedy as for its length.

The album's heartbreaking centrepiece and second single, 'Helicopter', is clearly an exploration of this story, from which it takes its name. But the force of Dima's presence at the centre of this striking, black-and-white poster, and the sheer specificity and verisimilitude of the story's details, pushes him deep into the experience of the album. It was a slow process of diffusion, this haunting, but 'Helicopter' was its key portal. Once heard in a certain way, it inextricably changed the way that I hear all the other songs. On a purely musical level, the single is so heady and strange; the verses drift up in ambulatory whisps, while the chorus is crowned by those heavy seventh chords like circling clouds. In fact, the major seventh sonorities which dominate the song create a sense of asphyxiation which might seem to add to the narcotic haze, until a desire for freedom and clarity is awakened. On learning the story behind its terrifying lyrics - 'my final days in company', 'and now they're through with me' - all these heavy sonorities and thick textures can be felt as hopelessly oppressive, like being permanently drugged. There is a particular kind of horror in finding that an ostensibly positive thing was always essentially negative. 'Helicopter' is so affecting a musical setting because it denies any kind of struggle to its protagonist; its chords are intangible and all-pervasive, just as the real hellishness of sex slavery is the absolute powerless passivity of it all. There is no violence or rebellion in this track, only the giddy surrealism of recognising the closeness of death, and stepping back to survey an absurd life in which all powers have so pointedly and inexplicably conspired towards your degredation, misery and eventual destruction.


'Walking free. Come with me. Far away. Everyday.'

'Helicopter' provides a template for a musical disjunction between a hopeless, dark present and the 'pushing out' of a feverish will for psychical well-being, a stoicism based on the denial of immediate pain in favour of a fanatical pursuit of pleasant memories and fantasies. But it also provides a lyrical template involving the opposition of a lonely 'I' and a shady 'They'. It is the uncanny pervasiveness of these templates which frame Dima's silently screaming face on each of the other tracks on the record.

Halcyon Digest refers to the songs-as-memories concept which Cox attributed to the album, but for memory to really operate as a narrative topic, beyond mere storytelling, a time-frame and present context must be explored. After all, there can be no real 'Halcyon' past without a dark present to look back from. For me, 'Helicopter' which constitutes such a delicate tipping point, is the momentary and endless present  couched between all the other songs. In turn, the other songs follow lines of memory or prayer or desire which shoot out from this dark place between the white lines of Cooper's story. While Dima's friend Lebedev searches in vain for traces of the lost boy in the last paragraph of the article, many of the lyrics in the surrounding tracks howl their relevance to this missing character:

'It could be the death of me, knowing that my friends will not remember me. I wanna get old.'
'Only fear can make you feel lonely out here. You learn to accept whatever you can get.'
'Lay my head on the cement bed. I had a few good years, but they don't know...'

Again and again, 'They' are evoked in shrouded mystery:

'Well everyday do what you can, and if you let them turn you 'round - whatever goes up must come down.'
'In the bluffs they know my name, in the bluffs they know.'
'I ask so many questions they let me go. They hang up the telephone'

The sense of a lone young male character in hopeless opposition with a terrifying, faceless force runs through much of the record.

Yet every new song brings a new will to escape into memory, into a 'Halcyon' safety zone, expressed most plainly perhaps in the chorus to 'Desire Lines'. Not only in the hazy drafts of 'Earthquake' and 'Sailing', but also on jaunty numbers such as 'Revival', 'Memory Boy' and 'Coronado', on some level at least there is a constant drive for release. But there's something about Deerhunter's sound which denies any complete escape, just as it denies crispness or clarity or simplicity. It's partly the films of fuzz, the murky vocals and manic double-tracking, the ambient swirl, but it's also in the bitter false relations which spice many of the chord progressions, mixing a taste of sickness into the elation of the most up-tempo tracks. In the same way that 'Helicopter' denies any real footholds for the desperately dreaming Dima, so these other tracks constitute only sharp doses of feverish fantasy through which the singer earnestly thrashes.


'Dream a little dream about your friends and their endings. Now I wanna wake up...'

In this way, any assumed blissfulness or irreverence in these tracks relies on walking a thin sheet of glass over the darkness of an unconscionable reality: 'Darkened hallways, away from me calling: stay!' There is, of course, one more aspect to the record which must necessarily be brought into this interpretation, the other spectre invoked explicitly in the liner notes. It is questionable how much the face flickering behind the album resembles that of Jay Reatard. However, the lines which close 'Coronado' cannot be overlooked:

'"And if I die before I wake, I know that it must frustrate some people that need a paycheck. Well, they need their blood let."'

As these lines twist the voice of the passive 'I' towards some grimly smiling vengeance over the exploitative 'They', Reatard seems to be eased into the template, and it is probably with respect to these lines that the final song is entitled 'He Would Have Laughed', the speech marks allowing him some direct comment before the band commence their seven-minute tribute. This track describes a character careering through life, racing towards death: 'I won't rest till I can't breathe.' The most striking connection between these lyrics and the Cooper story are the lines: 'Where do your friends go? Where do they see you? What did you want to be?' I know that Reatard had problems with drugs, and that his band all suddenly quit a few months before his death. How much of the album then, working backwards from this final song, can be heard from the position of a Lebedev character, confronted with the sudden disappearance of a friend, glimpsing their wild passage to inevitable destruction, powerless to help? Memories can be a retreat from this position too, fired off by guilt and furious mental back-tracking, trying desperately to get a hold on an uncontrollable situation, if only in an imaginary past moment.

Such an interpretation of an album, which I don't think I will ever be able to escape from, demonstrates the immense power that non-musical material can have on musical meaning. Pop songs such as these are almost infinitely subtle, their every word, shift of timbre, instrumental flourish or production effect can inform an interpretation (especially in combination with Cox's particular lyrical mode - halfway between explicitness and abstraction). By purposefully signposting cross-media connections within the multi-media object which is the record/CD, the band can initiate the careful play of these various texts, with the potential to articulate meanings that might be inaccessible, or even indescribable, to each unique medium on its own.