HEALER: With Atlas Sound, Cox is a confident singer-songwriter dwelling in the adolescent funks he thought he’d surmounted.
More than most, Bradford Cox reminds me of my man Polyphemus — not just the one Odysseus conned in the cave but the other one as well, the one posted up in the countryside and pining in song for the sea nymph Galatea. Song was his pharmakon, the cure for melancholy, but also the poison that kept him lovesick. The idea is a stone’s throw from Cox’s press release, where the Deerhunter frontman describes the aim of Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel (Kranky), his shimmering new bedroom-rock solo effort as Atlas Sound: “I want to make music that could be ‘healing’ or therapeutic to people who relate to it.”
After Cox’s drone-punk act Deerhunter took off last year, he would talk in interviews about his struggle with Marfan’s syndrome, a genetic disorder that has left him with disproportionately long limbs, a drawn face, sunken bovine eyes, and who knows what heart complications. The disease has left him looking cyclopean; grade-schoolers being the assholes they are, it’s left him feeling cyclopean too. Positioned that way, Deerhunter music sometimes sounds confrontational, each song an outcast’s well planned revenge. On stage, Cox would wear wedding dresses doused in blood, and at one show he even received a blow job from a bandmate — not necessarily groundbreaking stuff, but the gestures were confident, and the confidence was unsettling. Deerhunter’s Cryptograms LP and Fluorescent Grey EP (both 2007 releases on Kranky) were self-assured, the artistic capitulation of this young man realizing his limitations: who he was, what he looked like, what he loved and what he couldn’t, what he was good at, what he wanted to do.
So if Deerhunter are an aggro act born of ostracism, Cox’s posture in Atlas Sound, who perform upstairs at the Middle East this Tuesday, has flipped a bit. Here’s a confident singer-songwriter dwelling in the adolescent funks he thought he’d surmounted: exclusion (“River Card”); bullying and physical abuse (“Bite Marks”); confused sexuality (“Winter Vacation”); death (“Recent Bedroom”); “waiting to be changed” (“Quarantined”).
His sonic formula is simple but powerful: a bed of shimmering electronics and guitar fuzz, a mid-tempo beat with drums way back in the mix, haiku-like lyrics repeated over and over, words that, on being articulated, tend to dissipate. These aren’t songs but meditations. “I could not cry/I don’t know why,” he sings in “A Recent Bedroom”; then later on “Quarantined”: “Quarantined and far away from my friends/Waiting to be changed.” In one interview, Cox ran through every track here, detailing the story behind each. He’s a smart lyricist who for the most part knows when and where to hold back; he’s never cloying or too mushy or too woe-is-me. He’s also wry enough to pit warped lyrics against chipper and chirpy sounds — he bolsters “Quarantined,” one of the album’s most draining songs, with huge drum sounds and a bouncy Beach Boys bass line.
The dronier moments aim for impressionistic but sometimes end up half-baked — unnecessary drudgery, since Cox’s fully formed songs are impressionistic enough. That said, I do feel that these kinds of soft-focus bedroom-rock albums get too easily written off as breezy footnotes. It doesn’t help that Cox has been posting freshly recorded Atlas Sound tracks every few days on his blog, mostly good ones, though the pace at which he produces new material can make the songs he’s already released seem insignificant. In truth they’re merely humble, unassuming, lingering just long enough to hint at something greater.
ATLAS SOUND + WHITE RAINBOW + VALET | Middle East upstairs, 472 Mass Ave, Cambridge | February 26 | 617.864.EAST