Before we get into the discourse, let’s take a moment to recognize the severe dissimilarity Bradford Cox’s Atlas Sound has with the rest of the world’s moody frontman side-projects. The bulk is so solipsistic: meaningless time-sinks, stopgaps, evidence of inter-band ego-fallacies or creative bankruptcy that can completely ruin any excitement or expectation for the parent project (anyone still pumped for that erstwhile fourth Bloc Party record?) Somehow Cox eschews it all – sure the material born out of his porous, strung-out pet-project is consistently weepy, but I’ve never heard an Atlas Sound song and wished it was a Deerhunter song. This might be the grumpy complaints of a critic who had to spend an unfortunate amount of time with an incredibly egotistical Ben “Gomez” Ottewell solo joint earlier this year, but I think the appreciation is justified. He’s just not like the others – Atlas Sound and Deerhunter have both earned their contrasting identities.
Technically Parallax is the third time we’ve officially heard from Atlas Sound, but given Cox’s uber, over-sharing generosity via personal mp3 blogposts, that distinction feels a little silly. What we can say is this is the first label-released, artwork-adorned, vinyl-pressed release he’s been associated with since Halcyon Digest, which in turn came before Logos. Ostensibly because they’ve latched onto warm critical hearts for almost a decade, (and because “Walkabout” continues to be one of the most indelible pop songs of all time) Cox and his band members find themselves to be pretty popular. Diverging solo excursions from a criminally discontent, homosexual indie-rock singer isn’t often exactly the stuff of profitability, but Parallax landed defiantly in the American Billboard 100. If anyone was still underestimating the relevance of Atlas Sound or Bradford’s iconoclastic pomp, it’s about time to give it up.
Those who’ve caught the Southerner in concert usually bluster charmingly breathless praise towards the shocking revelation that “Dude, it was just him and a guitar.” Atlas Sound does not fuck around with its existence as a sole-proprietor, and Cox has made it an odd little campaign to separate his songwriting from the collaborative efforts behind Deerhunter. In retrospect it probably really helped that Lockett Pundt’s “Desire Lines” ended up the de facto year-end song list entry (all apologies to “Helicopter” and “Coronado”) but Parallax makes it a practical statement of purpose. Apparently conceived in the midst of trying personal relationships, in an environment of dank European hotel rooms and soul-snapping depression, the record stands out as a tribute to mixed feelings, isolation, and feeling perennially displaced – even more so than, you know, other Atlas Sound records.
There was a minor meme earlier in the year about ‘Flagstaff,’ a pensive little guitar chime that serves as Parallax’s penultimate whimper. When asked on the radio about the track’s origins, Cox launched into a semi-unwarranted list of personal atrocities that included stealing and smelling the used pencils of a crush; seeing pictures of an unborn baby killed in a car accident; watching a friend get decapitated in a freak accident and seeing his mom helplessly try to put the head back on, in what I can only assume was a mixture of horror and shock-induced delusion. It was not a necessary anecdote – apparently the song is a consolidation of the empty placations we offer ourselves to distract from the nastiness of the world – but honestly you wouldn’t get the macabre vibe from the song’s five-and-a-half minutes. But you would get an encroaching sense of shadowy helplessness, and maybe a dash of world-graying despair. Bradford is much more adept at creating emotions than narratives, and given the internet’s tabloidization of his personal discomforts, getting a vague grasp of his plights can be strangely rewarding. The popular criticism of Kanye’s sprawling, tear-soaked opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is that it relies too much on the man’s own personal legends to be considered universally great: the raw power of such personal openness, coming from a figure so famously public, could supersede the elemental impact of the songs themselves. Bizarrely the same observation could apply to Cox. With his famous outspokenness about personal depressions and prejudices, the diatribes on Parallax as an internal monologue become incredibly engaging. “Is your love worth /the nausea it could bring” (‘Modern Aquatic Nightsongs’) is powerful poetry, but the context of Bradford himself is what truly resonates, perhaps because he makes his well-being a very public and tangible issue. I’m not saying it’s artificial; in fact I appreciate the denser levels of dialogue – Cox does self-involvement a lot better than the average songwriter.
That certainly isn’t all it has going for it; like the rest of his output, Parallax creates beautifully organic ambience: sparse, ajar, and peculiarly warm. It’s aesthetic bliss – the escalating chimes of ‘Te Amo’, the fragmented chunks of ‘Terra Incognita,’ the feverish tranquilizer ‘Doldrums’ – he’s still building beautifully rich textures from his adaptable acoustic guitar. In spirit, Parallax brings thoughts of the meaty, mid-level entries of careers like Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young: heady, occasionally ornery works, adorned with cryptic messages, worth the required detective work. Sonically Atlas Sound has nothing in common with that generation of songwriters, which, in a sense, is what makes the project work; coated in milky bedroom-pop ambience and deliriously catchy guitar inversions the core remains shockingly human, Bradford’s own lonely tales. Rarely does a blog-topic bare it all so well.