Deerhunter - Monomania

Deerhunter’s fifth album is shellacked in grime as the Atlanta band bends and blends genres without sacrificing their most familiar elements.

Additional Info

8.5

ALBUM: Monomania

ARTIST: Deerhunter

2013

Rock

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.”

1. Neon Junkyard
The album begins with twinkling guitar, quiet drums, and Cox unintelligibly muttering. It’s a ten second warm-up that’s akin to asking the listener if she’s sure she want to come along for the ride. Then the album actually starts. When the instruments come together, we find Cox’s vocals peaked out and drenched in distortion. Gone is much of the sheen of Halcyon Digest. The guitars are full, effects swirling in the background. But some things haven’t changed: the song’s undeniably catchy. Cox sings, “Everything is the same as it was/now there’s nothing left to change.” We don’t believe him, but that’s okay.9.0
2. Leather Jacket II
The squealing lead guitar line is brash, snotty, even a bit annoying. But that’s the point. The second track finds Deerhunter marking its territory: “I was suffering/but I was a regular.” At its midway point, the song ignites with a crushing fit of cymbal blasts over downstroked power chords. It’s easy to imagine a packed venue with hundreds of fists thrusting in time. Behind the spectacle, a torrent of even more abrasive noise. That’s what happens on Monomania. You make a noisy pop song and layer it with more noise and you wear leather jackets and spit on the audience. The song collapses at its end, and the listener is already exhausted. 8.5
3. The Missing
The song is a warm towel for the blast of sweat and saliva that came right before. By bounds, it’s the prettiest track on the record; it’s the only one written by guitarist Lockett Pundt, who also sings lead here. The song is similar to much of Pundt’s output as Lotus Plaza—a dreamy soundscape with arpeggio guitar lines anchored by a steady backbeat. Though still lightly tinged with fuzz, Pundt’s vocals are cleaner and subdued compared to Cox’s. What the track really provides is a lovely break from the snot of the rest of the album—a breather, of sorts. It’s a lovely addition. The album’s best hook comes with its soaring chorus.9.5
4. Pensacola
The album’s strangest entry, though not without merit. The song’s honky-tonk feel comes complete with slide guitar played by newcomer Frankie Broyles, and galloping one-two drums. At first, the song seems out of place, almost silly, but Deerhunter are contributing to a southern tradition. Think “Ramblin’ Man” by fellow Georgians, the Allman Brothers. There are real issues here. After Cox sings about skipping town “From the delta to the plains,” he continues, “I could be your boyfriend/ or I could be your shame.” That’s when the song really makes sense.8.0
5. Dream Captain
Similar to “Neon Junkyard,” the band once again grooves behind Cox’s highly distorted vocals. It’s as archetypal for a song on Monomania as you get. The lead is gingerly plucked—it almost sounds snarky—and nearly outstays its welcome. At the chorus, the band gets anthemic again through another set of cymbal crashes and downstroked chords. Cox yells, “I’m a poor boy from a poor family/with nobody left to take care of me.” You feel that one (and it’s catchy as hell). The song has a nice bridge, and the first true guitar solo on the album. The complex structure makes it a muscular entry. 8.0
6. Blue Agent
Another upbeat plucked guitar intro, and it’s at this point where you may be wishing Deerhunter switched it up a bit more. A second track from Pundt would have been welcome here, as this song’s first half is the weakest point on the album. Cox’s vocals come through clearest here, and the choice to dial down the fuzz is curious because he’s not saying anything especially profound or even interesting. The track seems like a dud. But then, at midway, strummed acoustic guitar fades in, and the lead guitar shifts into melodic noodling reminiscent of something by Pixies’ Joey Santiago. Its strangeness is compelling, and saves the song from being total dreck. But, after the promising bridge, the song deflates and the momentum is lost. 6.5
7. T.H.M.
This song is the closest the album comes to a vintage, more familiar type of Deerhunter song, one that could have come from Microcastle. The main ascending melody drops in backed by a dancey drumbeat (complete with shakers). The upbeat feel of the music doesn’t quite jive with the lyrical content, as Cox sounds most contemplative here, but the conflicting moods work in their disparity. The song is affecting while still infectious. Cox is not snarling or sassy like on much of the rest of the record; the lyrics are a meditative account of suicide by a younger brother. Cox sings, “Ever since I was born/ I have felt so forlorn/I always knew this day would come/ Hey you lose and you win some.” There’s a spectrum of emotion being expressed here, and it’s at this is a point the album feels wholly real, grounded in both grief and ennui. Deerhunter may seem to be undoing the aesthetic they’ve so far built on Monomania, but it’s in removing the veneer that the true weight of the rest of the album can be felt. This whole thing is pretty damn real, pretty intimate. The song’s outro contains a strange fit of rhythmic coughing, an oddly fitting component which emphasizes the mortality. The track ends abruptly, as if to say, “Ah, screw it.”9.5
8. Sleepwalking
The song bleeds right from the disintegration of “T.H.M.” and it’s easy to see why the line between them is blurred. The melody sounds dreamy and a bit retro, like a Marc Boland song. The guitar line is catchy, the drumming solid, and Cox continues his earnest vocal delivery. The song climbs to a climax with the final harrowing lines, “Can’t you see your heart is hard now/Can’t you see we’ve grown apart now.” Another instance where the melody is fetching, and the content is moving. Another high point.9.0
9. Back to the Middle
This track contains the most extensive instrumentation, with Josh McKay contributing farfisa and organ parts which bolster the pattering guitar line. Despite this, and more sincere lyrics from Cox, the song feels light. The hook seems too easy for a band of this caliber, and it’s here that the conflicting moods of somber lyrics and playful music don’t entirely mesh like they do on “T.H.M.” A bridge that sounds like a throwaway guitar part from Microcastle doesn’t really help either.6.0
10. Monomania
The title track arrives with wailing feedback and instrument noise. The production on the song sounds markedly lo-fi, with muted drums and fuzzed-out, trebly guitar. Cox’s squeals bring the listener to the edge of the void with lines like, “Come on God, hear my prayer/ if you can’t send me an angel/ if you can’t send me an angel/send me something else.” Then the listener is pushed into oblivion with over three minutes of petulant chanting of “Mono-mono-mania” on top of a wall of noise. It’s a bit of a didactic approach, but it works. The chanting creates a strange hypnotic tunnel into Cox’s brain. And it’s pretty frightening in there.8.5
11. Nitebike
The quietest song here. The album’s sigh—of relief, of exhaustion, of reflection for all that came before. Echoing vocals and clean acoustic guitar create a textured environment different from the other songs. Cox alternates between a dreamy falsetto delivery and the gritty norm. This could be an Atlas Sound cut. The melodic harmonies are particularly pleasant. 8.0
12. Punk (La Vie Anterieure)
Despite the title, the song is sugary and pop influenced, as electric guitar builds over a solid acoustic base. Cox is confronting his life thus far: “For a year I was queer/I had conquered all my fears/Not alone anymore/but I found it such a bore,” and his listlessness infects the music with a middling tone and vibe. The last minute of the song degrades into jangling tambourine and acoustic guitar noise that just…stops. It’s an apt close to a track that references Charles Baudelaire’s idea of a “past life.” Like the speaker in the poem of the same name, Cox is just beginning to reflect on his past, while at the same time asking what comes next. It’s a poignant question mark to an album full of exclamation points.8.5
Michael McDermit is an artist living in Oregon. He is a contributing member of the My Idea of Fun artist collective and currently teaches writing and literature at the University of Oregon.



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