Bradford Cox, a high school dropout from suburban Atlanta who scoffs at sexual orientation and has been shadowed since childhood by Marfan syndrome, has become a hipster household name and his psychedelic avant-garde pop band Deerhunter is influencing future generations of musicians. This is the state of American music and I for one couldn’t be happier.
Deerhunter released Halcyon Digest in 2010 and for all intents and purposes nailed the sound they had been refining since recording 2001’s debut, Turn It Up Faggot. Dream and ambience, impermanence and renewal were all captured in this strangely palatable nugget of pure music gold. The alchemist is never satisfied however with just one successful transformation, and as prolific as Cox has been in and outside of Deerhunter in the past ten years (he put out a record each year from 2008-2011 as Atlas Sound), our collective consciousness knew Midas would test his touch elsewhere.
Fleeting as musical taste has become in the digital age—rarely offering unique and promising sounds more than a sophomore slump to prove themselves—Cox and Deerhunter knew they had to carve out a new niche in our cultural fabric or face fading into a blur of reverb behind The Deer Tracks, Deerhoof, and Deerpeople, or god forbid receive a flat review from Ian Cohen.
Monomania’s press release sent its buzzing shrapnel into the media army on Monday March 22nd, advertising the band’s sixth record (counting Microcastle’s addendum, Weird Era Con’t.) as “nocturnal garage” and “avant-garde(?) but only in context not form (original intent of avant garde (1912-59)) / before logic: FOG MACHINE / LEATHER / NEON.” Wow, right? It’s actually a pretty apt description.
The album is certainly otherworldly in its context, as in, it sounds different than other stuff coming out right now. But that’s second nature at this point for these guys. The all caps list of nouns at the end of the release articulates the live aesthetic the band’s shooting for. Judging by a performance of the title track “Monomania” on Fallon, Cox is fully embracing a glam androgyny, which plays to his strengths quite wonderfully. He doesn’t even play guitar on stage anymore; rather, he lets a black wig cover his eyes, leather pants and boots show off his slender figure, and a sheer dress shirt drape his shoulders as he croons. The late-night affair felt very rock-star, fit with a microphone slammed to the floor, an apathetic walk off stage, and a thirty second shot of said star ambling to the studio’s elevator; which brings me to the defining characteristic of Monomania: rock n’ roll.
Bradford Cox, needless to say, has always been pretty with-it, and given the past five years’ history of lo-fi pop music—in a collective attempt to rediscover the organic nature of 20th Century American roots music where DIY was the status quo not the exception—Cox has embraced the garage sound and his Georgia roots with a raw, rockin’ Deerhunter album—words that look pretty strange together. That’s the point.
The record’s opening track, “Neon Junkyard,” laments the modern condition, “everything is the same as it was, but now there’s nothing left to change,” but if all Deerhunter is trying to do is make a statement in its context, not its form, the splintered, sinister riff that Cox rips out of his guitar to open “Leather Jacket II” certainly changes something, if only our expectations for the rest of the album. Deerhunter uses psychedelic noise as an instrument instead of as texture on this track, and employs the ever-fashionable vocal delay, proving that they did indeed belong at Austin Psych Fest. With the title, “Leather Jacket II” to boot, they are clearly alluding to genre and heritage. “Dream Captain” is an excellent southern garage rock tune that sounds more like Jay Reatard or Ty Segall than what was Deerhunter and touts lyrics steeped in blues tradition, “I’m a poor boy from a poor family, I got nobody who can take care of me, I’m a poor boy I’m so dirty, but look into my eyes.” The track ends on a tension-filled suspended chord that I’m fairly certain is lifted straight from “Agoraphobia” off Microcastle, as if to remind the listener where they’ve been. Cox’s most extreme exploration of this Americana revivalism is “Pensacola,” an alt-country banger featuring a somber Memphis slide guitar and Tom Petty style vocals that relate the story of how “the woman that I love took another man, nothin’ ever ends up quite like you had planned.”
Interspersed among this old-school rock n’ roll grit are slicker rock tracks reminiscent of the early 2000s a la The Strokes, The Vines, The Hives, and The White Stripes—when mainstream pop music rediscovered rock. Frankly, when “The Missing” surfaces clean and bright out of the distorted cacophony of “Leather Jacket II,” it feels like a lost track off of Is This It, or as if the young Julian Casablancas took more drugs. “Sleepwalking’s” dream pop is just as sunny and bouncy, especially when rhythm guitar upbeat strums enter to motivate the pre-chorus. What feels like it’s better half, “Back to the Middle,” is pop-rock gem with a familiar staccato solo that hops up and down the major scale with killer simplicity. Cox never shies away from spilling his guts lyrically, despite cheery accompaniment, “this is where love has left me, it’s an endless cycle, please don’t take it away from me, look at me, my hair is falling out, you left me doubting.”
Deerhunter oscillates between disparate rock feels with professional ease, no doubt aided in its flow by producer Nicolas Vernhes at Brooklyn’s Rare Book Room Studio, where Microcastle and Parallax were recorded. Monomania climaxes with the title track, Cox’s nod to punk, channeling the frustration-turned-acceptance he described in a 2011 interview with Rolling Stone, “I have no personal life…I’m obsessive about one thing, that there’s one thing that’s going to make me happy and it’s making music.” The final two songs on the record recede to calm acoustic confessions, “For a month I was punk…for a week I was weak, I was humbled on my knees…for a year I was queer, I had conquered all my fears, not alone anymore, but I found it such a bore.” This was Cox’s vie antérieure however, and he has since accepted his love lost, his loneliness, and his life-long dedication to making music. Monomania is an example of focus and self-exploration; a treatise to the possibility of uncovering newness and value in what appears to be a bleak, postmodern junkyard where there’s nothing left to change. It is not a return to form, because how could we expect or want it to be? It is a return to the contextually avant-garde, and for Deerhunter in 2013 that means rock n’ roll.
Published on Pretty Much Amazing on 5.6.2013