Atlas Sound—Let The Blind Lead Those who can see but Cannot Feel” (Kranky, 2008)
There is something to be said for being too nice to pull off ambition. For “Let the Blind Lead Those who can see but Cannot Feel,” that’s mostly a good thing—the title is a good glimpse of the type of silliness Deerhunter lead singer Bradford James Cox can veer into, especially with no band to hold back his whimsies. But that Cox has such a good head for arrangements and records such a pretty album that his straining doesn’t undo the core.
His album opener is built around a child telling “A Ghost Story” and the slight narrative becomes a warm, reverberating fable. In the hands of a band like The Books, the sample would have likely been a sparse and morose, but Cox ends up treating the kid with surprising tenderness.
Likewise, reading his interview with Pitchfork makes the songs less interesting, not more. The themes behind are usually moments of poetic suffering, but little of that comes through—“Winter Vacation” is easier to enjoy if you just accept it as a Sigur Ros rip-off; “Cold as Ice” is a jaunty David Byrne loop rolling along with Cox’s endlessly washed voice, and he could just as likely be singing about his favorite Foreigner songs as some adolescent romantic humiliation.
Still, all the songs are enveloping, all reward headphones or good speakers, and all follow the inexorable logic of dance music, succeeding through emotional tones rather than concept. That may be best shown on “Scraping Past,” where Cox works from the same aesthetic that Matthew Dear does, using the title as a looped wash over a plucky glitch backbeat and a simple two-note bassline. Instead of developing the melodies, he mixes them to develop the song, which gives the song a simple propulsiveness that might have otherwise spiraled into twee jetties.
If “Let the Blind Lead Those who can see but Cannot Feel” had achieved the depth that Cox seemed to want, the album would have been a slog. Thank God Cox realized the shallow pleasure of listening to music, and made a good album rather than a “great” one.