Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that rock music is in a bad way.
That is to say, rock music can hardly be considered a viable commodity anymore, much less one that can attract the screaming teenage legions of decades past. The old dinosaurs present for rock’s initial blast have aged into oblivion, now no more than wrinkled faces above their sleek guitars; the womanizing misogynists of ’80s cock rock glory just can’t muster the hair to match the act anymore; and Kurt Cobain arguably ended rock’n’roll iconoclasm in 1994 with a pair of self-inflicted shots — one of heroin, the other from a gun.
Bradford Cox could never hope to bring back the art of being a rockstar, but he seems to get a kick out of pretending. The rail-thin 6’4” performer often drapes his skeletal figure in summer dresses onstage, and has a propensity for abusing antidepressants and Ativan. He trash-talks peers in interviews, and titled his band Deerhunter’s debut record “Turn It Up Faggot.” As he snapped to the Cleveland Scene, “I don’t give a fuck what they say about me, because I’m a white-trash queer who might live to be 30 if I’m lucky.”
All that said, one might expect Cox’s music to be a vulgar assault of old-fashioned, punk-rawkin’ party jams, something to provide the soundtrack to his wild and debauched lifestyle as an indie icon. But there’s a twist: Cox has long suffered from Marfan Syndrome, the disease that accounts for his disproportionate body type, if not his exceptional predilection toward nervous breakdowns. Most would expect a famous musician in his early twenties to be anything but chaste, but Cox has publicly confessed to being a virgin. For most of his life he has had only medication and music to keep him company.
Clearly informed by the narcotic delirium of his lost youth, “Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel” is the debut long-player from Atlas Sound, Cox’s home recording guise since age fourteen. Sounding the way an out-of-body experience might feel, the record is a clouded window into the loveless obsessive’s disfigured mind. Songs like “Small Horror” and “Ready, Set, Glow” pass without a single discernible instrument to be heard, instead presenting oceanic symphonies of carefully arranged samples, reverb and tape loops. Along with the protracted and unnecessary opener “A Ghost Story” (a bad habit Cox has nicked from Bright Eyes), roughly half of the fourteen tracks here could serve as New-Age lullabies for the mentally deranged.
“Let the Blind Lead” is most successful, however, when Cox speaks up. “River Card” is the record’s tune that is most firmly rooted in the physical realm, a sinister milieu of celestial mellotrons and aurora synths punctuated by a rolling drumbeat and haunted choirs. The claustrophobic “Quarantined” is a barely controlled mess of reverb-drenched drums and erratic electronic percussion, wherein a sedated Cox repeats his simple mantra, “Waiting to be changed.” An aggressive stab of feedback cuts through the heart of the transient orchestra, and just like that, the pretty thing retreats back into the twilight sky from whence it first drifted.
The record continues its winning streak with “On Guard,” as found sounds and disembodied echoes paint the moonlit backdrop like a meteor shower, falling tones and whispers slowly breaking into the atmosphere before dissolving back into nothingness. “Winter Vacation” lifts us a little farther up into the stratosphere, Cox’s voice clearer, and more clearly pained, than ever before.
But that’s just about as dynamic as the record ever gets; the final product is an album that is all tension and zero release. The atmospheric facade threatens to shatter a few times — the gorgeous guitar solo climax that peaks through the haze on “Ativan” nearly does the trick — but the big payoff never comes. And yet, “Let the Blind Lead” is one of those rare instances where homogeneity is a virtue rather than a flaw. It is a uniformly pretty, dreamy record that can serve as a largely inoffensive soundtrack to almost anything.
Which is not to say that there isn’t clearly a wealth of powerful, moving anguish behind this music. It just seems that instead of scarring the audience with his tormented experiences, Cox has chosen to gently bruise them.