If you aren’t ready for it, this fifth studio album by Deerhunter is a challenging listen. The vocals are largely distorted, the song structures seem stripped down, and there’s barely room to see around the spectrum of mania at play. Many of the sensibilities that made the veteran Atlanta band as popular as they are today are subdued here. The album doesn’t revisit much of their past—the droning soundscapes of Cryptograms or the indie-infectiousness of Microcastle—but there are recognizable flashes with concentrated listens. Monomania finds the band exploring another dimension of their already full sound. Thankfully, Deerhunter’s songs remain muscular, and this time, the album’s attitude is just as strong. It’s important to note is that despite the shift, the pumping heart of Monomania remains decidedly Deerhunter. It still feels like they’re the same band, and though every song may not be a step forward, it seems like the band may have thought that simply stepping forward was pretty boring.
Considering selections on their last record, 2010’s Halcyon Digest, it seemed logical for Deerhunter to continue deeper into the intricate song structures they created there, but Monomania has no equivalent to ethereal tracks like “He Would Have Laughed” or “Sailing.” This may be seen as a disappointment, as those songs are some of the band’s strongest: undeniably beautiful, while still sounding signature. The trade-off is that Monomania doesn’t try to be a rehash of stuff they’ve already done. The inital press release described the album as, “a mystery disc of NOCTURNAL GARAGE.” That’s pretty apt. Take it or leave it. At its core, they’ve delivered a grimy rock record with a few detours along the way—each with varying degrees of success.
It’s important to set the scene that birthed Monomania, as the album deals a lot with the tumultuous time lead vocalist/guitarist Bradford Cox was going through. Cox had been putting a lot of effort into his own Atlas Sound project, releasing the solid Parallax right before an extensive Deerhunter tour for Halcyon Digest. During the tour, Cox suffered a nervous breakdown and withdrew from the band. In an interview shortly after his breakdown, Cox said, “The other guys in Deerhunter, they’ve all found things. And I just have monomania. I always will. I'm obsessive about one thing, that there's one thing that's going to make me happy and it's making music, or there's one thing that's going to make me happy and it's this person.” Also, the band as a whole was going through difficulties, swapping out one bassist named Josh for another—Fauver with McKay (of Athens, GA’s Macha). They also added guitarist, Frankie Broyles, who shines here playing steel guitar on “Pensacola.” All of the shuffling seems to have altered the band’s process a bit. Guitarist Lockett Pundt authored only one track this go-around (the excellent “The Missing”). While Monomania is quite different than an Atlas Sound offering, it does seem a lot like this is Cox’s record, at least more so than in the past. When, on the title track, Cox sings lines like, “And in my head/ there is something rotting dead,” it’s easy to see that he needs the catharsis that music brings. Atlas Sound may be a fine outlet on its own, but right now Cox needs a raging rock band to do any good for him mentally. The driving force behind the collection of songs on Monomania becomes clear when you examine the concept of “monomania” itself.
Because of this, the deepest joys of the album come through repeat listens. New elements come to light each time through—whispered vocals on “Nitebike” or a buried train whistle on “T.H.M.”. All of the tracks feature distorted vocals, a lot of fat power chords, and a bit of snotty energy, but a closer examination reveals a deeper artistic breadth. The album actually contains an eclectic assembly of songs. The songwriting is sturdy enough so that there are distinctly different moods under the unifying aesthetic. The first half features more anthemic songs like “Neon Junkyard” and “Leather Jacket II”, which are playful yet still pack a wallop. While the record’s second half doesn’t necessarily slow down, the lyrical content becomes more meditative and introverted. Songs like “T.H.M.” and “Sleepwalking” deal with heavier issues of mortality without feeling morose because of the band rocking all the while.
Anyone who’s seen a Deerhunter performance knows that their live show is much more savage than any of their albums. Live, the band often extends songs like “Fluorescent Grey” and “Nothing Ever Happened” into lengthy jams. Swells of loop pedal noise, piercing amplifier feedback, and spacey chirping effects populate both their sets. The word “psychadelic” isn’t at all out of place. Monomania’s cacophony and grittiness make it the closest studio artifact of the band’s live show; it’s much easier to imagine Cox prancing around stage in a bloody sundress spitting a song like “Leather Jacket II” instead of, say, the tender “Helicopter” from Halcyon Digest.
Monomania is not a perfect record (though it doesn’t care to be); there are a couple of clunky moments, tonally and sonically. Maybe the album is a bit too long. Maybe it could use another dreamy Pundt-penned song. Maybe the title track is a bit annoying. But what makes this an incredibly solid addition to an already impressive discography is the soul that carries throughout—the vision of music as a dictating life force. It’s only because the best songs here are so well crafted that the weaker ones even come across as so. They’d be gold for any lesser garage band, say an Artic Monkeys, or even Black Keys, or, really, any band that only cared about that step forward, and in doing so, ignored all the fluorescent junk they might have found off the expected path.
“Finding fluorescence in the junk.”