Review by Marisa Brown
Atlas Sound may be Bradford Cox's solo project, but it's clear after just one listen that there's not much that separates Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel from Cox's main concentration, Deerhunter. The same filtered and treated guitars, tapes, and percussion make and wind their way around in eerie yet lush arrangements as Cox sings repeated phrases that eventually fade out into hushed chords and murmurings. The difference, however -- and it is a difference that means a lot -- is that Cox is much more focused here, and though the album certainly fits easily and well into post-rock, he's able to better control the instrumental meandering that at times would drag down Cryptograms. Instead of acting as the default sound, it represents a conscious decision, a gentle contrast that complements and strengthens the whole, and the attention that he allows his voice (the timbre of which can, as in the warm, Daedelus-esque "Cold as Ice" or the gentle "Winter Vacation," sound downright Björk-ish) allows the more instrumentally focused pieces to acquire greater meaning. The vocals, too, when they exist, are given more priority in the mix, an emphasis that shows what a compelling singer he actually is. "Quarantined," for example, has only two lyrical lines ("Quarantined and kept so far away from my friends/I'm waiting to be changed"), but the subtle emotion that can be heard in Cox's enunciation makes it one of the best and most powerful tracks on the entire album. The album's not faultless: as with Deerhunter, Cox has the tendency to try too hard to be profound (take the title -- or the title track -- for example), wanting so badly to say something important that he sounds trite and forced, and untrustworthy, but when he's able to forget about conveying some kind of meaning and instead focuses on the actual music, his message -- one of pain and love and feeling lost, of trying desperately to understand -- is undeniable.
Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel
Bradford Cox spent the summer he was 16 in a children's hospital having multiple surgeries on his chest and back. His condition, Marfan syndrome, has proven difficult to separate from his music. Cox's lost summer hangs over his songs, and his gawky physique has been the dress-draped centerpiece of his band's confrontational live shows. At the same time, he can also be defensive about his appearance, using it to explain why his music's detractors are sometimes as hyperbolic as his most fervent admirers. Thousands of words later, other music critics still ask me what I could possibly like in Cox's work.
Cox plays and sings in Atlanta five-piece Deerhunter, but it's tempting to say he actually lives as Atlas Sound. He's used the name for his solo recordings ever since the sixth grade, and lately his output has been almost nonstop: He's posted roughly 70 new tracks, mostly originals, on his blog since last July. Deerhunter's Cryptograms and Fluorescent Grey EP expertly brought together elements of krautrock, psych, shoegaze, ambient, post-punk, and indie rock, but Atlas Sound's full-length debut turns inward from that band's high-volume squall. Cox also trades the four-track of previous Atlas Sound vinyl splits for a laptop. The result is a gauzy bedroom pop album that drifts from ambient bliss-outs to sadsack avant-garage, from hospitals to heartache, as if passing through different stages of sleep on a sunny afternoon. No previous interest in Deerhunter required.
Cox spent the summer he was 25 touring and recording Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel. But the fears of nine years earlier stalk the album's corridors. Opener "A Ghost Story" sets a hissy sample of a young boy clumsily narrating over the fluorescent hum of treated, sampled glockenspiel. Childhood innocence gives way to to adolescent confusion on the waltz-like "Recent Bedroom", as a music box crashes headlong into squiggly guitars and bustling percussion. A Zimbabwean instrument called a mbira and some bells from Ghana waft through guitars and collaged drums on "Quarantined", a song that evokes both children's hospitals and a sense of unresolved metamorphosis: "I am waiting to be changed."
By the time of his summer in the hospital, Cox had already met Deerhunter guitarist Lockett Pundt, to whom he dedicated this album. A sample of Pundt's slender, bouncing guitar lick forms the basis of seventh cut "Cold as Ice", the way a Flamingos or Lionel Richie snippet might become a track by the Field, although Cox adds his own frail tenor and jangling tambourine along with a driving beat. The first half of the album watches the world from afar, but from here on, Cox's narrator directly addresses an unattainable love interest.
The difference between the album's halves is clear from just its catchiest few songs. On what would be side A, the clipped drum rolls and treated harps of "River Card" can't make the object of Cox's doomed whispers ("River so clear and blue/ I'm so in love with you/ But you'll drown me") any easier to hold, just as the narrator can't cry on "Recent Bedroom", see his friends on "Quarantined", or make friends at all on "On Guard". Near the end of the album, though, the guitar-driven, spring reverb-drenched "Ativan" goes into bitterly specific detail about sleeping in while a person has "lunch with a girl/ who takes time to listen to every single word you utter." Two tracks earlier, "Bite Marks" describes self-inflicted scars-- not surgical ones-- as two guitar notes drone and buzz. Weezer's "Only in Dreams" probably isn't the comparison Cox would pick for his achingly nostalgic bass line, but then again, the title fits.
Let the Blind's beauty is in the way the music renders Cox's plaintive themes, not in the impressionistic language he chooses to express them. The closing, instrumental title track returns to the glockenspiels from opener "A Ghost Story", joined by organ and mbira for a flickering, look-ma-no-drums ambient piece recalling the "pop ambient" of Kompakt's Gas and Markus Guentner or the psychedelic electronic space-outs of the Orb; wordless "Ready, Set, Glow" achieves something similar with nylon-string strums, shakers, glockenspiel, and Cox's own sampled vocals. Later, "After Class" reshapes Deerhunter's contribution to the recent Living Bridge compilation into another lyric-less track that builds up nicely to "Ativan", like a skilled DJ keeping the room on edge before a climactic break. Out of context, it's the least essential thing here, but it seems significant that the original's coda ("Strip down, strip down") implies a release this album's lovelorn central figure never finds.
When there are words, they're often simple and repetitive, or else overshadowed by the lush sonics. The chiming prettiness and misty vocals of Kraftwerk via Ralf & Florian's "Tanzmusik" help set the template for more than a couple of tracks on Let the Blind, including the terse, jittery "On Guard". Brooklyn-via-Detroit techno-pop savant Matthew Dear would probably give up one of his pseudonyms for the way "Winter Vacation" merges glistening, euphoric pop with a minimal techno beat. Music boxes no longer sound so innocent on the clanging, alarm-like "Scraping Past", the track that will interrupt your reverie.
Then again, the last thing you'll notice about "Small Horror" is the lyrics, but they're naked, a little naïve, and utterly human. Nothing but droning, treated guitar and Cox's crying, defeated voice, the track is a desperate plea that finds a certain hymn-like exaltation in its own sadness. "Hold me even though you couldn't care less," Cox murmurs slowly.
"I woke up," Cox sings on both Cryptograms and Fluorescent Grey. Atlas Sound's debut ends with the protagonist going back to sleep, the dreamer dreaming. As with each of Cox's projects, Let the Blind works best as a swirling, disorienting whole, organizing traditionally abstract styles like graphic-design elements within his unifying vision until they communicate like good pop. If Cryptograms was a puzzle, Cox's latest is a cocoon. Strange as it may seem to admit, how much time you choose to spend in it could depend on how you react to Cox's persona. Those drawn to his lovesick, evolving audio presence have, like Morrissey or Belle & Sebastian obsessives, an entire world to explore. Hell, none of these 14 tracks are even on the blog.
-Marc Hogan, February 19, 2008