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Where Deerhunter Hit Their Breakthrough

With their new album Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared gaining the warm reviews expected of a respected, mature band. Let’s remember where Deerhunter truly began their brilliant, edgy career—on their sophomore album, Cryptograms. That record has two distinct halves, created by two studio sessions recorded months apart. The atmospheric, shadowy first section gives way to the second half’s more immediate melody.

The opening cricket and river sounds prompt a pulsing bass line on top of which, guitars drone. The beginning segue of “Intro” into the title track makes for a ruthless cacophony. Against each slamming guitar, front man Bradford Cox taunts, “There was/No sound,”

While the guitars lack a tune in the first half, their lush layering builds and falls, making the noisier moments cathartic against the quieter hums.

Every now and then small lines of melody appear, only to lose focus in the murk.

The instruments often build up from bottom bass notes to create a whirling noise that still traces back to its foundation. Retaining these anchoring elements lets the music ebb and flow. Every time the drones crescendo, they can come back down. Tracks “Providence” and “Octet” serve as the best directed examples, where thumping bass lines carry the songs in and out from long spiraling, blinking guitar-work. “I was the corpse that spiraled out into phantom hallways,” Cox moans throughout the latter track. The first side’s songs flow in and out of one another in a symphony of squalor.

If Cryptograms’ first half challenges (which it does), then the second half rewards. Like most of side two, the song “Spring Hall Convert” puts Cox’s voice and lyrics in focus. “I had my face like the ocean/So I’d radiate but/ Too much radiation/ I walk like a walker,” he sings, recounting recurring hospital stays due to his Marfan Syndrome. And the music certainly radiates with a strong guitar that compliments Cox’s abstract falsetto.

Guitarist Lockett Pundt’s lyrical contribution, “Strange Lights,” sounds sunny for a change. For the first time, Deerhunter glows with a smile-inducing psychedelia that shines over the second side. The guitars stay consistent with pleasing melodies; their occasional dart toward the sordid creates an energizing jerk.

The final track, “Heatherwood,” seduces with side one’s shadowed edge, while holding onto the latter half’s musical and lyrical cohesion. Built around an echoing, plucked guitar-riff, Cox muses on death and reincarnation. “When one life is over/ A new one begins” he repeats. But the last lyric, “Was not seen again” continues once the instruments silence, and a single sparrow whistle closes the album.

Cryptograms’ spiraling cover art perfectly visualizes the album’s content. The swirling black, gray, and pink lines obscure each other into a hypnotic pattern, just how each instrument overlaps the other to create a dizzying soundscape. But like the still white deer radiating at the image’s center, the tracks always stem from a musical ballast. As Cox sings on “Hazel Street,” “the subject is always just out of frame,” and chasing Cryptograms’ hidden meanings makes the album a fascinating repeated listen.

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