Deerhunter’s Cryptograms (2007) was difficult. Psychedelic shades plastered against the subtle undertones of flowery production juxtaposed with commanding guitar riffs and bass rumbles don’t make for the most sonically pleasing, accessible effort. It wasn’t an album you could throw on at anytime of the day and work with it. But it certainly shouldn’t have been dismissed as scattered and incoherent, though it sure could feel that way. Frontman Bradford Cox was well aware of this. His sweeping and understated vocal abilities grounded Deerhunter and often created the more casual and supple tracks (see something like “Red Ink” as a prime example). All this would certainly speak to his need to release something slightly more low-key and less band-like.
And it’s pretty obvious from the get-go that this was the inspiration for Cox’s first solo LP, Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See but Cannot Feel. The unusually tender spots of Cryptograms are in the spotlight here when Cox breaks out of the band dynamic and plays with the production on his own. And based on his blog, he certainly hits on true emotions. From his experiences with drugs to his reactions to children with AIDS, he doesn’t hold much back. He also wastes no time displaying his production prowess. But as difficult as it is to describe something like Cryptograms, Let the Blind triples the level of difficulty. So much sound occurs at one time that it’s hard to pinpoint exact moments of brilliance. But everything works as one: lyrics, production and bubbly, hollowed-out tides of noise.
But it’s the calculated qualities of the album that are the most jarring, in a ghostly, hushed sort of way. Blending equal parts reverb and joy, frankness and shoegaze, Björk and Noah Lennox, the album sounds like oil on water, but through Cox’s mastery of production and his subtle charisma, the jingly and atmospheric plucks form the perfect layer cake. Take something like the casually placed “Cold As Ice” that disrupts the album’s first half — songs mostly filled with buttery ghostliness. It’s the first track with hints of spastic, computerized tinkering and the song playfully bounces along with keychain jingles that seem to reflect some mechanical, structured aesthetic. But then the track spills into a brick wall on “Scraping Past.” It’s a perfect disruption from an album teeming with powdery, fluffy sonic qualities and shows Cox’s awareness of timing and rhythm.
Still, the album’s certainly more than just exquisite production. The affecting lyrics are most astounding in the way that Cox can grab so much out of the air with such seemingly sophomoric lines. “Recent Bedroom” and “River Card,” the album’s first two true tracks and easily the best on the album — and maybe of the year thus far — float with tide-in, tide-out auras, but are grounded by the simplicity of lines like, “I walked outside / I could not cry / I don’t know why” and “Rivers so clear and blue / I am so in love with you.” They’re loose and airy, but seem so utterly dominant within the deluge of sound. Even Cox’s “ohs” carry weight, reeling in the complexity of the production.
Cox may be starting to trademark a new train-entering-the-station type of sound. Most tracks ripple with echo-like, ghastly thrusts. Some may seem more overwhelming than they really are, like the jittery, skittery “Ready, Set, Glow” or the subtle techno-beat driven “Winter Vacation.” Still others show that Cox hasn’t quite found his perfect stride. “Bite Marks” tries a bit too hard to waltz with stoic lyrics, but the bucket just doesn’t hold water. And it doesn’t help that the fuzzy, car-alarm sounding beat might be the most uninspired on the album. It’s too easy to tell what’s going on in the track, something Cox rarely allows to happen. But generally, he keeps his sounds and tendencies within the fences of his enormous sonic pasture.
He does draw on certain influences, though, which are instantly recognizable, but newly vibrant. “Ativan,” possibly the greatest departure from the rest of the album, strikes in with echo-like guitar strums while Cox’s voice easily mirrors Robert Smith’s. The song creates something so ’80s, it’s surprising that the track isn’t actually a Cure b-side. But he’s not sticking to just one genre, Cox embraces his inner Björk with strained, almost growling vocals and sparkling computerized tappings and swellings as a backdrop on “Quarantined.” Though both could easily be covers, Cox throws his own spin on them with the So-Cal-inspired guitar waver on “Ativan” and the steady pace gain and influx of percussion on “Quarantined.”
Let the Blind isn’t an easy listen, either. While Cryptograms examined a special culmination of varying styles blending together, Cox’s solo efforts feel genuinely warm, but with an undercurrent of cautious optimism missing from his group’s work. You probably won’t want to throw this on while going to the gym. But can you take this with you on a stroll through downtown Boston. Maybe. There might not be a perfect setting for the album, or maybe it’s for every situation. It’s difficult — but it’s damn memorable.