Rumpus Sound Takes: In Our Rooms

By

Atlas Sound
Parallax
(4AD)

I am not particularly attuned to my cultural moment when I listen to Bradford Cox’s music. This is the case both with his band Deerhunter and here, on the third full-length released under his Atlas Sound moniker. The music doesn’t encourage me to wallow in anxiety over technocratic capitalism, as does, for example, Radiohead’s. I don’t get to meditate on sincerity or earnestness, as I do with Animal Collective and its offshoots. As such, I’m left with little recourse than to consider the insular feel of the music, to play up its lack of explicit engagement with the Zeitgeist (or blog posts about the Zeitgeist, as the case may be). I can do this by saddling Atlas Sound with a term like “bedroom pop.”

Cox has done his share to court the term. There’s certainly no lack of sleep or dream imagery on this or previous records. Moreover, his use of samplers and other digital tools in lieu of a full band points more towards the bedroom as place of origin than, say, the studio or rehearsal space. And of course, Cox has himself used the term to describe the two-and-a-half hours’ worth of material he made available for download on his website last year. A collection of demos and toss-offs, the Bedroom Databank was just that: a heap of megabytes to be transferred wholesale from Cox’s personal archive to your own.

As a descriptor, “bedroom,” in all its permutations (“bedroom pop,” “bedroom psychedelia,” et al.), has proliferated in the past few years. The term has accrued the versatility suitable to wide usage. It can refer either to the way a piece of music is recorded—casually or inexpertly (a laptop running Garageband comes to mind)—or to the supposed effect the music has on the listener. The effect is akin to that evoked by terms like “spacey” or “washed-out.” To be sure, in this reverb-soaked, chillwave-plagued musical moment of ours, these terms see plenty of action. What distinguishes a term like bedroom, however, is the denaturing effect that frequent use has brought about.

Certain things come to mind when I hear the word bedroom. I think of someplace private, secluded. Mainly I think of being a teenager, when I’d go to my room to get away from my family. It was the place I could go to be alone. At the same time, it was also the site of my engagement with the world, for it was there that I would go to read books and listen to records. What on the surface may have appeared as withdrawal was in fact immersion.

What harm is there in a music geared towards introspection, if by listening on your own you are in fact engaging with a larger community of solitary individuals? New technology has made us even more connected in our moments of retreat; today’s teenager, hiding from his parents, has at his disposal not only paperbacks, CDs and DVDs, but also Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

It may be, however, that this supposed interconnectedness serves only to inhibit our engagement with one another on a more immediate level. I consider as invaluable the time I spent as a 17-year-old reading David Berman’s poetry and listening to Pavement. It made me aware of the exciting world that lay beyond my parents’ home—which was all the more exciting when, at 18, I left for college and got to experience that world first-hand.

I worry about the proliferation of so many “bedroom” acts. It seems like these bands are championing a sort of protracted adolescence. An entire aesthetic has evolved from the widespread use of technology once prized for its expediency. Recording software adds polish to the roughest of demos; samplers and loop pedals blur the line between process and finished product, with results that are often less than profound; mediocre bands hide behind a curtain of reverb.

I felt a similar sense of unease tuning in to the talk surrounding The Suburbs, the outsized opus by Arcade Fire. One especially unsettling reason posited for its success—debuting at #1 on the Billboard charts, winning the Grammy for Album of the Year—was the mythic resonance it supposedly had among listeners. Here was a document of our collective origins. All of us (or at least white, middle class listeners) had known the faceless sprawl that translated on record to such beautiful anguish. This album spoke to who we were. You could go on the internet and find a program that, provided with the address of your childhood home, would play the album over its image.

A child of the suburbs myself, I don’t mean to deny the emotional resonance that upbringing had for me or for anyone else. But most of us, I presume, have grown up and left our parents’ homes. And many of us, I’d venture to guess, have moved to vibrant urban centers that are home to the kind of social and cultural openness we claim was lacking in the communities in which we grew up. Surely we have better things to do than wax nostalgic about an invented myth of our harrowing adolescence.

It may be that “bedroom” can be rescued from its more unsettling implications to describe a positive trend in music (though I’d find it hard to imagine anything in the genre competing with The Beach Boys’ “In My Room”). Still, Atlas Sound makes a compelling argument for the description, perhaps because Cox’s music reflects many of the contradictions surrounding the term. Too much seclusion and you become restive; too much introspection and you become anxious. A song from the first record, “Ativan,” sums it up nicely with this line: “I slept till I threw up.”

Parallax is full of these weighted moments. “Is your love worth the nausea it could bring?” Cox asks on “Modern Aquatic Nightsongs,” and even straightforward tracks like “Te Amo” are marked by a sense of doubt. The listener should welcome this ambivalence, which is ultimately a source of strength for Atlas Sound. The record refuses to retreat into a stale environment of pleasure without risk. Cox’s career seems to have been leading up to this point. The demos he released last year now look to have been a spring cleaning of sorts. With all that material out in the open, he could leave behind the security of the bedroom. On Parallax, he steps out into the world.


Marshall Yarbrough has written about music for The Brooklyn Rail, Rain Taxi, and Flagpole magazine. He lives in Brooklyn. More from this author →