I suppose it’s not surprising that an album recorded entirely by one man should be so suffocatingly lonesome. Bradford Cox, instantly notorious frontman for last year’s ubiquitous buzz band Deerhunter, has been recording as Atlas Sound for more than half his life. Compared to the songs of his better-known group, his solo debut, Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel, does not rock. There are no moments of raucous guitar lying in wait beneath the album’s waves of ambient static. When the songs do develop into hazy pop ballads, Cox’s ’60s-inspired vocals evoke a heartbroken teen queen rather than a deranged garage dweller. It’s an uneven and at times painfully intimate record, but one that confirms the talent of a songwriter obsessed with illuminating his interior truth.
The album begins with "A Ghost Story," which is more of a mood-setting found-sound experiment than a proper song. In it, Cox sculpts static tones and creeping clatter around an early-’80s home recording of a child telling a disjointed ghost story to his expectant parents. Its actual spookiness comes from the realization that we are listening to ghosts of a sort: a child long since grown, parents who, for all we know, could have been hit by a truck ten years ago. It’s hard to imagine Cox, who made first childhood recording experiments using an appropriated family karaoke machine, not using this specter of innocence past as a guiding metaphor.
The three songs that follow are indisputably the album’s finest moments, a drawback to the record’s "in the order they were finished" sequencing but sublime when taken as a brief burst. "Recent Bedroom" is a lush electric waltz. Its mournfully sighed lines are repeated continually, obscuring the fact that it only contains thirteen words in total. "River Card" is even more conventionally gorgeous, with a clipped and echoed drumbeat at its center and twinkling "treated harp" on its fringe. The song weaves an affecting fable of a boy turning away from his entanglements to embrace a fatal darkness; it is doubly impressive for lyrics purported to be spontaneously generated.
"Quarantined" is perhaps the purest distillation of the album’s alienated ethos, quotable in full due to two-line brevity. "Quarantined and kept so far away from all my friends. I am waiting to be changed," he sings, with a romantic delivery that feels intrinsically doomed. Literal interpretation suggests childhood hospital stays, but the music has the hopeful bounce of slightly unrealistic daydream.
From there, the record’s chilly expressions of disconnect become much less approachable. "On Guard" evokes floating dread without any structural footholds for the listener to become emotionally engaged. "Winter Vacation" doesn’t sound like much fun at all, either. Cox sings tragically, over still fuzz and a submerged dance beat, about bleak landscapes devoid of even a hint of human interaction. "Cold as Ice" skips and stutters in place. The intricate and varied instrumentation Cox wrings from his laptop productions is usually intriguing, but muddled delivery of exceedingly vague sentiments denies them real staying power. "Crazy to believe that patterns emerge from this stuff/ Wasted words, wasted words," he sings in "Scraping Past." As a condemnation of his own stream of consciousness lyrics, it’s sometimes hard to disagree.
When "Bite Marks" begins, the return to outwardly melodic ’60s crooning is a relief. The "bite marks" here are warmly regarded; wounds are at least concrete proof of human contact on an album where it’s in short supply. And parsing the exact instrumental break downs for each song (provided by Cox), it’s obvious that his airy compositions are always improved by the grounding addition of a Fender jazz bass.
The record never really recaptures its early stride, closing with tracks that illustrate its overarching strengths and weaknesses. "After Class" is a gutted version of a superior Deerhunter song. All of its directness has been stripped away, and what’s left is akin to bits of adhesive left on a surface from which a label has just been peeled. "Ativan" is alternate proof that Cox can strike gold when he takes pains to shoo away some of the crippling ambiguity. Its autobiographical focus on sleeplessness, and the odd hours it forces you to keep, is inspired and specific. The actively pretty singing is emotionally affecting — a sad lament for life passing you by.
Fully rounded songs like these are so compelling that the minor ambient sketches seem disappointingly undercooked in comparison. As his prolific blog output proves, Cox has already moved past these songs and into a space that isn’t quite so desolate. But, as a snapshot of bedroom isolation, Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See, But Cannot Feel is too beautifully sullen to shun entirely.