Atlas Sound: Lincoln Hall, 3/3/12

Mon Mar 05 2012

For a certain sector of the public, Bradford Cox is already untouchable; the only question is whether he’ll experience being a legend in his own time or if history will declare it later. Exhibit A would be the crowd at Lincoln Hall Saturday night, a sold-out but not overcrowded show, featuring lots of people (including the headliner) drinking lots of alcohol. But during the quiet portions of Cox’s set, you did not hear a single person gabbing. Chalk this up also to a spellbinding performance by the man himself; whether out of respect or awe, everyone in the room was struck dumb. Now that the loops-as-band trend has been done to death, it was particularly exciting to witness the format in the hands of a real artist rather than a technician. Cox made the most fluid transitions as he added layers of sound, naturally and with no need to make it perfect. Even when rhythms weren’t exactly in synch or elements were abruptly scrapped, it was easy to flow with the muse that Bradford followed. There’s an edgy, volatile dynamic to everything Cox does (or, as he put it, “I’m very avant-garde. Just look at my body.”), making the many successful mood swings and improvisations twisting through the compositions seem miraculous.

Last year’s Parallax was the first Atlas Sound record to rank up with the best Deerhunter material, but Cox was determined that his own reimaginings in the live setting would trump the hooks, and he was right. He stripped the most memorable instrumental melodies completely out of “Angel Is Broken” and “Mona Lisa” and sang them as if the words were just occurring to him, built menacing walls of noise and juxtaposed them with barely-audible acoustic stretches, turning sugary pop songs into arduous journeys through emotional turmoil and bringing some in the audience to tears. As much as Cox deconstructed and transformed his songs, their essence was intact; the thread of soul runs straight through from conception to recording to performance.

He played for about an hour without uttering a spoken word, then spent a good fifteen minutes or so endearing himself further by ripping on the Aragon Ballroom, sniffing markers, threatening to play another 55-minute version of “My Sharona” and otherwise congenially taunting himself and the crowd. But there was plenty more music; following the astounding performance of “Mona Lisa”, he left the stage and returned for two more songs, “Terra Incognita” (dedicated to the late Trish Keenan) and an epic “Attic Lights”, during which he spent the first several minutes bantering with fans up front and demanding that they smell his armpit.

None of this necessarily adds up to an incredible show on paper; it’s Cox’s personality and bare emotional release that are so affecting. He seems incapable of faking anything. I’ve seen him live three times now (twice with Deerhunter) and the lasting impression from each is radically different, but each of those memories blazes brightly in my mind, unforgettable. At this point I can’t think of a more captivating musician in America; as a songwriter and performer, he demands rapt attention. He has found his way of perforating pop music with the naked absurdities of real life as very few have; Lou Reed, John Lydon, Kurt Cobain. But no decent person wants to be tagged as a genius or a voice of a generation or something—if that’s even possible in today’s saturated media culture. So let it be said that Bradford’s a regular guy who happens to be on a stage. And we get to watch, which is awesome.

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