Experimental Artist of the Week: Bradford Cox

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Bradford Cox has had a difficult life. He was born with Marfan syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes one to appear unusually tall with long, skeletal limbs. His awkward appearance coupled with his confused sexuality (he has previously described himself as asexual before identifying himself as a homosexual more recently) led to a difficult adolescence for Cox in which he struggled to make friends and connect with his peers.

These feelings of loneliness and isolation inform every song that Cox has written and no other songwriter can quite match his unique emotional perspective. Similarly, no one can match his unique blend of old pop and modern ambient/electronic influences paired with his often fragmented and distorted vocals.

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Cox has two musical projects, each with distinct personalities. The more popular project is his band, Deerhunter, consisting of him and four other members. Deerhunter’s early music showed a strong punk and noise-rock influence filtered through Cox’s psychedelic production tendencies, while their more recent albums have gone in a progressively more straightforward direction. While albums like Microcastle (2008) and Halcyon Digest (2010) have increased the group’s popularity with their anthemic guitar riffs and pleasant ballads, it is their earlier work that appeals most to me.

Cryptograms (2007) represents the artistic peak of the band to me. This album is also clearly when Cox’s influence was strongest, before other members of the band began to influence the songwriting more. Cryptograms is comparable to an Animal Collective album in that it seems determined to overwhelm you with its infinite layers of sound. It’s also somewhat schizophrenic in its approach, alternating between long ambient passages and explosive bursts of abrasive guitar and manipulated vocals. If you find yourself daunted at first, give it a second try. There’s no way you could possibly pick up everything Cox is trying to get across here on first listen.

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However, it is Cox’s solo work as Atlas Sound that truly cements him as one of my favorite artists. Although Deerhunter is more popular, I prefer Atlas Sound because it is in his solo work where Cox’s personality and emotions really come through. The first Atlas Sound album, Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel (2008), is one of the most impactful albums I’ve ever had the privilege of experiencing. From the opening sample of a confused child attempting to tell a ghost story through the lush synth bursts that close the album, this is a sonic journey meant to be experienced uninterrupted on headphones.

Anyone who has ever felt truly alone will connect to this album instantly. The raw emotion that Cox displays on this record is breathtaking and the compositions are ingeniously layered and haunting. To me, this album is as good as music gets and vastly under appreciated.

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Cox followed up this masterpiece with Logos (2009), another excellent record brimming with ideas and emotions. This album also featured stunning collaborations with Animal Collective’s Panda Bear and Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier.

Although the more straightforward nature of Cox’s recent work appeals to me less than his early work, he has remained a unique voice within modern music and I will always listen to any projects he’s involved in. Not to mention, Cox isn’t the type of musician to let himself be pigeonholed into any one style. It’s likely that another genre-busting, experimental work of art is on the horizon.

Whether Cox ever reverts back to a more experimental approach or not, he will forever hold a special place among my favorite artists as the ultimate voice of solitude. Although many of us haven’t lived lives half as difficult as his, what the music of Bradford Cox so beautifully and accurately captures is a more base emotion that we’ve all experienced: the feeling of being alone and unable to connect with another human being.

Adam Peterson

I am a Journalism major at SDSU with an extreme love for experimental and boundary-pushing music. I spend the majority of my free time listening to, talking about, and evaluating music in addition to constantly searching for new artists who are doing something different.