And so the trend continues. Between his main band Deerhunter and his solo side project under the moniker Atlas Sound, Bradford Cox has released at least one album per year since 2007. That’s not even counting various EPs or the 4 collections of Atlas Sound bedroom demos he released for free last year. The guy’s brain must be a songwriting factory, churning out lyrics and new ideas for songs every few hours. He also appears to know quite well what works and what doesn’t, as evidenced by how increasingly impeccable both projects have gotten over time. Each Deerhunter and Atlas Sound record has been an improvement on the one before it, even though neither project has been around quite long enough to earn “veteran” status. Not only has Cox become a better songwriter through it all, but sonically the arrangements have gotten more complex while largely playing with minimalism and ambient noises. In other words, he proves there’s a way to do more with less. That’s the case more than ever with Atlas Sound’s third record “Parallax”, a lonely and adrift record that carefully treads the line between psychedelia and somber pop.
The cover of “Parallax” tells you so much about what the record itself is like, both sonically as well as emotionally. Cox’s face is halfway hidden in shadow as his hand gently caresses a vintage microphone nearby. First and foremost, this is the first time Cox has appeared unobscured on an album cover. The last Atlas Sound record “Logos” featured a shirtless Cox with a blinding white light in place of his head on the cover. That he’s in clear focus here says volumes, even if it that wasn’t the point. See, the earliest days of both Deerhunter and Atlas Sound featured a far more timid and introverted Cox. Guitars and vocal effects often buried Cox’s singing which was pretty restrained in the first place. Listen to Deerhunter’s “Cryptograms” from 2007 and then last year’s “Halcyon Digest” and you’ll notice a world of difference in the vocals. As Cox’s confidence in his voice has grown, so has his presence in the mix. He’s clearer than ever on “Parallax”, keeping the vocal effects to a minimum and putting more of a range on display. Placing your face on your album cover also is a strong display of confidence, as more than ever people know the exact person responsible for the music they’re hearing. He’s no longer a frail body with a glowing head. It also indicates that perhaps this is the most personal of all the records he’s done, the one he feels best represents his own headspace or personality.
In recent interviews, Cox has admitted that lasting happiness continues to elude him, and that dark cloud that constantly hangs over him partly manifests itself in the shadowy cover, but also in the music itself. Quiet acoustic numbers like “Modern Aquatic Nightsongs” and “Terra Incognita” drift along with a certain listlessness, but it’s songs like “Doldrums” and “Flagstaff” that truly revel in ambient and downtrodden textures. It may not be the happiest stuff in the world, but it is exceptionally beautiful and maintains a consistency that “Logos” never fully achieved. Balancing that darkness out are a few brighter moments, such as opening track “The Shakes”, which is a gorgeous pop song about the ugly topic of being bored with fame and fortune. Album centerpiece “Mona Lisa” is a work of super catchy art and in many ways an opposing emotional force to that of “The Shakes”. It is in many ways the best moment on the entire album, certainly the one that will stick with you in the end, but lyrically speaking it leaves something to be desired. While most of the other songs are remarkably descriptive and specific in nature, “Mona Lisa” skates by on vagaries and gets away with it, largely thanks to how exceptional everything else about it is. Other louder and in many ways brighter moments on the record come via “Angel Is Broken” and the closing “Lightworks”, both of which feel like sonic slaps in the face following much quieter cuts. Those jarring transitions would typically take away from an otherwise coherent mood or feeling established by most records, but in this particular case the elements are similar enough that the impact is softened even as the energy and noise might suggest otherwise.
If we’re keeping Bradford Cox’s two bands separate from one another in the idea that they each hold their own distinct identities and sonic palettes, it’s relatively easy to say “Parallax” is the best Atlas Sound record so far. It is also in many ways the best thing that Cox has ever released on the whole, at least from a songwriting and vocal standpoint. His ever-increasing confidence as an artist has only led to growth in every aspect of his music-making, though viewing things from a wide perspective might yield fewer noticeable changes. The moves he’s made have largely been subtle and small ones, but progress is still being made the way it needs to for any artist. Compared to his last Atlas Sound record “Logos”, “Parallax” is not only a more solid listen from front to back, but Cox is also far less reliant on guests than he used to be. Panda Bear brought a lot of his style to the song “Walkabout” on the last album, and Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier collaboration with Cox on “Quick Canal” yielded Stereolab-like results. The only noteworthy guest on “Parallax” is MGMT’s Andrew VanWyngarden, and he just played piano on “Mona Lisa”. It doesn’t REALLY sound like a MGMT song, in spite of its psych-pop greatness. To put it another way, this is the first Atlas Sound album that genuinely feels like an Atlas Sound album. Now we’re left wondering – if he can pull off something this great on his own, what can we expect from the next Deerhunter record, especially if you think “Halcyon Digest” was one of the best records of 2010? If the pattern of Cox unleashing at least one new record a year continues, we’ll probably find out in 2012.