It’s official: Bradford Cox is stepping out of the shadows. Oh, sure, we heard hints of this development in last year’s Halcyon Digest, the much-heralded effort by Cox’s “real” band, Deerhunter, which introduced a newfound clarity to the band’s sound. But the songs on that album were still clouded by frustratingly (or beguilingly — take your pick) catch-all lines encouraging the listener to dream little dreams about basement scenes. They were still sweet nothings being whispered in our ears, both intensely introspective and utterly weightless.
But Parallax changes things. No, Cox isn’t treating us to profundities here — not really. He’s simply being more direct, and this lyrical shift makes a world of difference. First single “Terra Incognito” is gorgeous, in the expected way that all of Cox’s songs are gorgeous, but more importantly, it’s one of the most unabashedly heartfelt songs he’s penned, reaching its peak as lush textures drop out to leave that cracked voice all alone with a guitar to ask, achingly: “Will you join me? Could you possibly be the one I sought — the one I fought for?” Sweet, bordering on trite? Without a doubt. Yet the damn thing gets me every single time, the growing lump in my throat quelling any cynical derision that dares arise. It’s straightforwardly emotional and devastatingly honest, a winning combination that galvanizes Cox’s music. Indeed, Parallax not only feels more immediate than its predecessors, it’s also refreshingly candid and disarmingly sincere.
It also sounds beautiful, but that’s practically a given. Even the sketches and demos that made up last year’s charmingly messy Bedroom Databank compilation sounded uniformly lovely, despite lacking a strong compositional center. What’s notable is how Cox’s penchant for formless sonic splendor takes on significantly greater grace when tempered by tighter-crafted constructions; the six-minute “Flagstaff” spends over half its runtime in a blissful yet quietly unsettling place, all aqueous figures and spacey atmosphere. It’s reminiscent of the unfinished MP3s Cox releases on his band’s blog, but as the penultimate track here, it seems one enormous and luxuriant breath of open space. Alongside the traditional melodic stylings of “My Angel Is Broken” and “Mona Lisa,” such flights of idle psychedelic dreaminess are effective, even welcome. And so even though Parallax may seem at first unusually conventional, at least for somebody who has spent the later part of the last decade scouring out sounds in a manner befitting his solo project’s name, it wins you over with the sheer strength of its material. Every song here skillfully walks the line between being meticulously crafted and appealingly loose. “Doldrums” is relaxed, but — despite its title — never submits to the stagnancy that threatens to overtake it. “Modern Aquatic Nightsongs” is filled with carefully placed drips and squishing sounds, yet it maintains a sense of spontaneity and eschews deliberateness.
The same can’t always be said for Cox’s vocal performances, which veer dangerously close to contrivance on the album’s title track. “Parallax” isn’t a bad song (although its swirling ambience does prove more distracting than invigorating), and Cox’s voice doesn’t sound particularly unpleasant in it, but hearing him sounding physically strained is neither pleasant nor enlightening. It’s the lone track here that sounds self-consciously like bedroom pop, Carles-esque scare quotes and all. Whereas such an effort would have made sense on 2009’s more organically introverted Logos, here it feels both out of place and unconvincing. For the most part, Parallax’s more straightforward approach to songwriting is paralleled by Cox’s handling of the album’s sonic textures, but there are still those frustrating moments when he hides behind his arrangements. And these glimpses of insecurity stop being cute after a short while, instead imbuing the album with an intermittent, exasperating facelessness. Thankfully, such peeks of inhibition are brief, and Cox spends far more time confidently beckoning us into the glorious world he’s created. For the first time, this is a place where we’re to be cohabitants, not merely invitees. As Cox sings on the ravishing “Te Amo,” “We’ll go to sleep and we’ll have such straaange dreams.” With pleasure.