By Brent Ables | 16 May 2013
It’s important to attend to beginnings. Most people met Deerhunter around the time of Cryptograms (2007) or the beloved Microcastle (2008), but their first static-wreathed transmission to the world was an aggressively amelodic cacophony affectionately known as Turn It Up Faggot (2005). If you haven’t heard it, you’re not alone. Spotify’s otherwise exhaustive Deerhunter inventory excludes it, and the band themselves rarely draw from it for concerts. Even the title is spurious: the album was printed under the name Deerhunter, and the nickname, according to Bradford Cox, came from a common heckler refrain hurled at the band. As with every word that comes out of Cox’s mouth, I find this a bit curious. One thing the album isn’t is quiet. Deerhunter is known even now for their noisy and often protracted live improvisation, and given that Turn It Up Faggot was already their most abrasive record to begin with, it’s hard to imagine early concertgoers complaining about a lack of volume. Then there’s the slur. It’s well-known that Cox has a thing for performing in dresses and toying with perceptions of his sexuality, and he does come from the American south. The pieces fit. But even if the hecklers did so heckle, the important point is that only Bradford Cox could have adopted the slogan for his own music, effectively rewriting the first moment of his career via public proxy.
Cox didn’t need to be a freak. The internet buzz about his personal life, which continues unabated to this day, has been particularly irritating insofar as it rarely acknowledges its own culpability. (After years of breathless “news” stories about Cox’s eccentricities, Pitchfork recently published an interview under the blithe heading, “Are his antics overshadowing his art?”) But it would be wrong to lay all the blame on the media—after all, it was Cox and co. who made the decision to rename their first album. From the very beginning, Cox has shown himself to be an unparalleled manipulator of public perception. He is something we just don’t see anymore in the increasingly lifeless and pallid world of indie rock: a genuine personality. He is something like our generation’s Morrissey: a spectacle nurturing a spectacle. But unlike Morrissey, whose sad-sack lyrics weren’t always congruent with his passionate denunciations of…whatever, Cox’s musical evolution reflects his character in a most fascinating way.
Turn It Up Faggot was the statement of a songwriter utterly uninterested in accommodating the world. Even as Cox invited anyone interested into his public world, his art began as an unsophisticated architecture of exclusion. It wasn’t until the last third of Cryptograms that the band finally crawled out from their bunker and showed their faces to the sun. The brilliance of that record was how it set up the emergence. After leading us into an expertly constructed wasteland of lifeless static and numbing repetition, Cox surprised the hell out of everyone by dropping a handful of enormously affecting pop songs at the end. Microcastle found the band mostly forgoing the distortion, but maintaining their distance through a different palette of techniques: ambient drift, disaffection, and cavernous reverb.
The same dialectic continued: Cox’s notoriety continued to grow along with the band’s fame, but all the while Deerhunter maintained their miniature castle walls using increasingly sophisticated materials. So when Halcyon Digest (2010) arrived, it quickly distinguished itself as the band’s crowning achievement because it found them not just fully exposed to the light, but—for the first time—in full command of it. The techniques that had previously been used for obfuscation were repurposed for refraction. In a year many will only remember for a man named Kanye, Deerhunter and Women managed to make indie rock seem like it actually mattered again.
Three years later, that feeling has faded a bit. And it’s hard not to hear “He Would Have Laughed,” Halcyon Digest’s showstopping closer, as a kind of eulogy. The track was a tribute to Jay Reatard, but it tapped into universal shit that most never find the breath to say: “Only bored as I get older / Find new ways to spend my time.” For the first time in his career, Cox’s lyrics were as naked as his persona. And yet “He Would Have Laughed” and “Helicopter,” Halcyon’s other powerhouse, were concerned with people who were not Bradford Cox. The pure emotional force that had eluded him as long as he tried to shield himself was set loose when Cox simply forgot about himself altogether. On Monomania, he’s remembered. He had already captured the essence of lonely desperation, but here the loneliness is his own. And it’s on full display.
Monomania brings us a new, unhidden Deerhunter. The band throws up no barriers here, and although they make a lot of noise on “Leather Jackets II” and “Monomania,” the clamor is presented for its own sake. There are no more ambient interludes or prolonged outros. The wooziness of Microcastle and Halcyon’s slower tracks is gone, replaced by a workmanlike grit and sense of purpose. And most surprisingly, the songcraft is quite traditional: “Back to the Middle” is an honest-to-God power-pop anthem. Only the title track throws any sand at the listener, but even there Cox’s meltdown transpires against a well-structured backdrop. For all these reasons, many fans I’ve talked to have, in one friend’s words, lamented Deerhunter’s “departure from what made them so great.” And it’s true enough that the album is a departure. It doesn’t cast the same spell that Deerhunter had fans under from late Cryptograms to the last seconds of Halcyon Digest. But it would be a mistake to write it off for this reason.
Monomania is the sound of a healthy and aware group of musicians who have experimented with artifice and ultimately moved beyond it. Rather than warding us off or shifting the focus, Cox now wants to work through life with us: “I’ve been looking for some harmonies / Some words to sing that could really bring / The lonely-hearted some company / All the people that were just like me, yeah.” Like many of the sentiments on Monomania, this one is straightforward and borderline sentimental. It could be preachy or condescending, but it comes off as simply friendly. And Cox is no less personable elsewhere. “T.H.M.” relates a tragedy about his brother with neither irony nor drama, letting the force of a tragic 3 AM phone call slip through mournful arpeggios. But even as he’s gotten more candid, Cox has learned how to introduce just the right edge of abstraction into his lyrics, as on “Blue Light”: “I’m a blue light, I’m a crippled coward / Shining out in the night / The sky is clearer now that I’m filled with fright.” Cox has never been a poet, but he’s more relatable than a thousand anonymous sad strummers because—freak or no—he feels like a real person.
In order to give voice to that reality, Cox continues to stray ever farther from his roots. The band had already integrated classic rock influences on Halcyon Digest, and Monomania continues this gradual shift away from the indie trappings of their earlier albums. Cox has noted in interviews that his inspirations for Monomania weren’t Kraftwerk and Kevin Shields, but Hank Williams and Howling Wolf. He is concerned with “Finding ancient language in the blood / Fading a little more each day.” It’s this influence that led the band to record the album in an especially quick-and-dirty session, and is sonically most evident in the Delta swing of “Pensacola.” More deeply, it’s apparent in Cox’s basic concern with facing the tedious shit of life head-on and using his art to make something tolerable out of it. The concern, as Cox puts it in the first line of the album, with “finding the fluorescence in the junk.”
But he doesn’t find it alone. Like most people who write about this band, I’m guilty of devoting a disproportional amount of this space to Bradford Cox. It’s hard not to. But Morissey, for all his eccentric brilliance, wouldn’t have made it anywhere without Johnny Marr. And if a quiet guitarist named Lockett Pundt hadn’t joined Deerhunter in time for Cryptograms, Bradford Cox might still be wearing dresses in empty Atlanta basements and fending off slurs from uninterested drunks.
Pundt has been the band’s secret weapon ever since he joined. Not just for penning some of their most enduring tracks—“Desire Lines” and “Agoraphobia,” to begin with—but for bringing grace to Cox’s gnarled scuzz when there was none and gravity where there wasn’t enough. Pundt’s sole credit on Monomania is for “The Missing,” an uplifting anthem which is almost certainly the best thing on the record. But even if his voice isn’t heard as much as some of us would like, his spiderlike guitar work and micro-melodies sing throughout. If last year’s excellent Spooky Action At A Distance is any indication, Pundt seems to be only now entering his prime. This bodes well for a band that already ranks among the most consistent and successful of their time. By their sixth album, most groups are already beginning to wither; having gracefully weathered, Deerhunter sound like they’re only now beginning.