November 13, 2011

Test Spin: Parallax

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When something is described as “science fiction,” you think it’s either a movie or a book, but never music. Not so for Deerhunter’s frontman Bradford Cox. Cox, through his solo project Atlas Sound, turned out an album that he describes as just that. Parallax, like most of the Cox’s music, tries to push the boundaries of our thought in ways that we often don’t expect. Cox has tried this before, but in Parallax, he makes a much more concentrated effort that pays off in his most approachable and best-sounding album to date.

To prevent disappointing anybody, it should be said that Parallax has no references to plasma rifles or faster-than-light technology. He does talk about galaxies and celestial crops, but only sparsely. The whole sci-fi thing would come off as a gimmick if it were not for Cox’s stylistic changes from his previous album, Logos. He sounds just as distant, but now there is something about the distance that has changed. It’s alien and foreign, as if he’s already past the point of wanting to be human and would rather speak to us from a galaxy far away. The lack of a human form comes to be of great use of Cox, who emerges and disappears back into the music as if he were a formless entity.

Surprisingly, Cox also reaches out to the audience, seeking empathy as he tries to relate his own experiences with the audiences’. In the title track he gasps, “Your pain/ It’s probably equal,” and in “Te Amo” he belts out that “We’ll have the same dream.” Contrast that with “Ativan” from his first album Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See but Cannot Feel: “I slept till I threw up … I crawl back between the sheets.”

Being true to the album’s title, Cox goes through emotional swings from changes in perception. Opening track “The Shakes” begins with Cox finding money and fame, but suddenly panicking over the realization that his friends are all material possessions. Facing this parallax, he breaks down at the end into the melded sound of the chugging drumbeat, strumming guitars and pronounced saxophone.

Introspection is not new for Cox, who maintains his introverted self-awareness even as he mixes it with alien worldliness. “Modern Aquatic Nightsongs” uses rolling electronic nose to create a churned sci-fi sound — the kind of sound one would expect from an alien garden. It works to great effect: he contemplates an unknown person’s love as an alien thing, trying to anchor it in something that he understands: “Is your love worth/ The nausea that it could bring/ Is your love like/A thousand bells ringing.” Even with all these metaphors, he is unable to have a firm grasp on it, leading to his breakdown again: “Cold/ Cold/ Cold/ Cold.”

Parallax also follows the trend towards pop sounds that started with Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest. Parallax’s catchiest tune, “Mona Lisa,” for example, features one of indie pop’s best known acts, MGMT’s Andrew Vanwyngarden, with Cox singing while upbeat pop chords bounce in the background. “Te Amo” starts off with a smooth rolling hook with an almost hypnotic quality. Cox has progressed far from the ambient/noise rock that typified his and Deerhunter’s early work; with each album, he gets more confident and strips away the distortions for a more listener-friendly sound.

With this growing confidence, Cox’s voice becomes much stronger, pronounced and clear: no longer does he hide behind guests singers, like he did with Logos, or whisper incoherently with ambient noise in the background. He even tries his hand in some Elvis-like singing in “Praying Man.”

A lot of things in the album happen at once, sometimes to a dizzying degree. There’s the general transition to a pop sound, growing confidence, parallax, science fiction and space. They all seem jumbled together, but they all come together in the last few songs. “Terra Incognita,” one of the best songs on the album, seamlessly integrates a guitar hook as Cox alternately croons and warbles about ancient technologies, open skies and perception, before settling down to ask “Will you join me?/ Could you possibly be/ The one I sought/ The one I fought for?”

Cox, after taking us through outer space and his subconscious, gives us a fitting conclusion in the form of “Lightworks.” Here, he strips away the dark to reveal a light that guides him, giving some solace after a depressing and intellectually exhausting trip through his mind. “Everywhere I look there is a light/ And there’s no pain,” he sings before giving into an improvised harmonica solo.

It’s around this point that everything starts to make sense: We are not just listening to what Cox thinks, but how he thinks. He shows us how our minds are not so different from his, and that we all have the potential to think differently, just as he did with Parallax. In a sense, Cox has given us a tour of not only the deepest, darkest parts of his mind, but also of our minds too, revealing a glimpse of the weirdness in ourselves.

Original Author: Kai Sam Ng