On his most recent outing under the Atlas Sound moniker, 2009’s Logos, Bradford Cox let a little light into his gloomy bedroom. The muddled synths and whispery melodies that previously defined the Deerhunter frontman’s solo project were exchanged for crisp acoustic guitars and wider outlook. But Cox still cast his fractured pop with a morbid touch — see the regret at the heart of Logos’s jangly standout, “Walkabout” — and if the overall effect was sunnier, it was only because Cox found subjects other than himself on which to focus.
In many ways the new Atlas Sound album Parallax continues the aesthetic progression apparent on Logos. Glistening guitar tones prevail. Song structures flex tightly from the efforts of a studied popsmith. Parallax is easily Atlas Sound’s best-sounding album to date. But it’s also step inward, a return to the personal preoccupations of Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See but Cannot Feel.
It would be easy, and maybe preferable, to let the gorgeous lo-fi layers of Parallax wash over you and not worry too much about the words being sung. Even with added force Cox gives to his vocals, and the higher spot in the mix they take, he’s not exactly a pro at enunciating, and you can ignore these lyrics if you want to. But it’s hard to get away from the opening salvo of “Give me pain, give me bruises” in the title track, or “Is your love worth the nausea it would bring?” in “Modern Aquatic Nightmares.” The view these songs take toward love is kind of what this album is all about. In case you’ve forgotten your Astronomy 101, “parallax” is the effect whereby an object seems to shift position due to the movement of the observer. Love evades, Cox argues. Seen from a distance, it’s motionless and resolute. Then you run right past it.
That doesn’t necessitate not trying, though. “Te Amo” is maybe Cox’s prettiest song yet, a shimmeringly somber portrait of arms outstretched. Set to a circular piano figure and gently pulsing percussion, Cox belts out a series of offers to someone heartbreakingly distant. And on the sha-la-la-ing “Praying Man,” Cox is either brutally ironic or unflinchingly faithful: “Kick me when I’m down…I’ll rise again, I’m a praying man.”
Kind of like Parallax’s album cover, which shows a half-lit Cox gripping a vintage microphone, the artist is only half visible here. Cox has become adept and sneaking in and out of various personas, at keeping the connection between his art and himself tenuous and vague. As he told the New York Times in reference to the Parallax song “Lightworks,” “I cannot say I really believe this, but then again, I probably do.” Cox can seem either a lovelorn wallflower or a cynical narcissist, depending on the angle. Maybe it’s not love he’s chasing. Maybe it’s himself.