Deerhunter - Monomania

Since the release of their triumphant sophomore album, 2007′s Cryptograms, Atlanta’s Deerhunter have produced a pretty vast catalog that’s been both unpredictable and consistently great to an almost shocking degree. Expand the scope of that catalog to include the three LPs from Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox’s solo-ish side project Atlas Sound, and you’re looking at maybe the best discography of the last decade: seven LPs and two EPs (which are, no exaggeration, all essential) plus a handful of singles, produced over a five-year span. And that doesn’t include Deerhunter’s only-pretty-good 2005 debut, Turn It Up Faggot, or the countless non-album tracks Cox has made available during that span. It also doesn’t take into consideration Deerhunter’s new album, Monomania, which makes a strong case to be considered their very best.

Still, for the uninitiated, just approaching the music of Deerhunter can be a daunting prospect. There’s no clear entry point; it’s easy to get lost. Along with the band’s official catalog, there’s a Pollard-worthy amount of ancillary material: After the release of 2010′s magnificent Halcyon Digest, Cox posted four volumes of unused demos called Bedroom Databank for free download on his website. More vexing still, as far as Cox is concerned, it’s all equally valid, even as it becomes almost impossible to keep track of. “There’s no differentiation [between the officially released songs and the unfinished material],” Cox said in a 2009 interview. “I think some of the blog stuff is better than the stuff I put out on records. Of course, sometimes it’s absolutely awful. And the truth is: if you named five blog songs, chances are, three of them I wouldn’t even remember. I just put stuff up so fast.”

Between Cox’s superhuman prolificacy and his penchant for rambling, trollish melodrama, there’s almost a bit of Ryan Adams to his persona. But where Adams has settled on a recognizable sonic template for his music, Cox transforms his sound like a post-millennial Bowie. Cryptograms was noisy, no-wave-y krautgaze; Cox’s last release, the 2011 Atlas Sound record Parallax, was glammy, dreamy crooning. (Both are magnificent.) Cox frequently adjusts his vocal delivery to reflect the intent of the music, making him almost unrecognizable at points. And something about that is kinda hard to reconcile. Physically, the guy is unmissable — he’s 6’4″, 115 pounds, with unusually long limbs (the result of Marfan syndrome), and a propensity to wear dresses — and publicly, he’s established himself as a quote source on par with Courtney Love’s Twitter feed. But musically — the thing he does better than almost everyone else in the world — he’s a shape-shifter.

Cox opens Monomania with a croak and a rattle and a sigh, as if he’s wearily trying to find the new shape he’ll be assuming this time around, and when he settles on it, it sounds a lot like … David Bowie. (As recorded by … Bob Pollard.) That track, titled “Neon Junkyard,” focuses on one of Cox’s recent aesthetic obsessions: neon lights, fluorescent colors. “We’re living in neon lights,” Cox told Rolling Stone of his band’s studio setup while making Monomania (the album was recorded at Rare Book Room Studio in Greenpoint with producer Nicolas Vernhes, who also worked on Parallax). “I spent all day at a place called Let There Be Neon. I like to go to diners that have neon lights. I just love neon — the pinkness and the greenness, you know?” Naturally, the cover of Monomania features the album’s title spelled out in neon lights. And, of course, such obsession is at the heart of Monomania. Indeed, it’s the very definition of the word (per Merriam-Webster: “1. mental illness especially when limited in expression to one idea or area of thought; 2: excessive concentration on a single object or idea”).

That intensity of focus, though, is belied somewhat by Cox’s chameleonism. After “Neon Junkyard,” the Bowie tones are dropped, while Cox spends several songs fucking around with midwestern timbres. “Pensacola” is the first of several tracks on which Cox delivers a vocal that sounds like Dylan or Westerberg, over a song that — beneath the hiss and fuzz and volume — is basically American roots music. Cox even seems to be embracing such imagery in his lyrics: “I came from the delta down to the plains,” he sings, more interested in the blunt archetypal resonance of those words than using them to tell a story. “Dream Captain,” meanwhile, could have fit on Wilco’s Summerteeth. “Nitebike” sounds exactly like the lo-fi Petty-isms Kurt Vile was recording circa Constant Hitmaker.

Those are distinctly American references — and Monomania is a deliberately American-sounding record. Earlier this month, Cox told Buzzfeed’s Matthew Perpetua, “The one thing I aspire to is to be a great American rock ’n’ roll band. And when I think of that, I think of Pylon, R.E.M., even bands I don’t even particularly like. There’s just a lineage, and a history, and a respect for elders.”

Throughout its 12 tracks, Monomania feels like an album that is trying to be part of an American tradition. You can pretty easily pick out hints of national giants in these songs: Lou Reed, Sonic Youth, the Ramones, Cheap Trick, Big Star, the New York Dolls, the Stooges. But I hear more than just the progenitors in these songs — I can hear the shades of other latter-day bands like Deerhunter, bands that have successfully synthesized countless seminal influences: Pavement, Spoon, Beck, the Strokes, the Dandy Warhols, Ween. It’s also very much a rock and roll album. Cox has called it “a nocturnal garage record,” and “a very avant-garde rock & roll record.” He’s not wrong to add modifiers like “nocturnal” and “avant-garde,” but at its core, Monomania could be Deerhunter’s most traditional collection. Perhaps because of that, to some degree, it also sounds most immediately like a classic.

It’s hard to choose highlights from an album so rich, but for me, right now, there are a few absolute standouts. “Leather Jacket II” is a T. Rex riff distorted to Spacemen 3 degrees of hallucinating insanity; Cox’s vocal is a glammy strut obscured and warped by filthy dub echo. “The Missing” is guitarist Lockett Pundt’s contribution: a heavenly indie-pop jewel that levitates on pillowy clouds of clean guitars and Farfisa. And finally, there’s the snarling title track and lead single, which is filled with unexpected melodic and structural choices — most notably its whirlpool coda — each of them thrilling and fulfilling in ways that make me excited about the yet-undiscovered possibilities of rock music in general. It’s probably the best song ever written by the band, and could right now be the best song released in 2013.

Cox allegedly wrote some 250 songs over a two-year span to be considered for Monomania; one would imagine the whittling-down process was almost as taxing as the writing itself. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the title refers very specifically to Cox’s artistic dedication. In a 2011 interview promoting Parallax, in fact, Cox used the word in that precise context:

I guess my time as a musician has gone by so fast that I realized that I have no personal life. The other guys in Deerhunter, they 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 …

Here, Cox was describing the psychological factors that led to his nervous breakdown, which occurred in March 2011. And maybe at this point, he has no muse other than the music; maybe the only demons he’s exorcising are the ones that cause him to devote his life to this art form. In a 2010 interview — before the nervous breakdown — he said, “I sit at home and play gui­tar, making demos. I do our graphic design and typog­raphy for our releases. I devote my life to all of these little details, so there’s not really any room for me to develop a social life. I don’t have a private life to speak of, really. Everything is out there in the music.”

Coming from nearly any other musician, that might sound like a vague platitude, but from Cox, it … kind of explains a lot. And I wonder if, at this point, everything in there — everything in him, I mean — is the music. It wouldn’t surprise me. Monomania sounds like a carefully cultivated library of rock-and-roll history, refined, remembered, and processed though the fucked-up, echo-heavy head of a man who can’t hear anything else, and then refracted outward, like light through a prism, given new colors, new presence, new meaning, and shimmering, iridescent beauty.

Comments (57)
  1. I was a little…well, not disappointed at first, but I didn’t love this right away like I expected to after being on a Deerhunter binge for about the last two months. But I shouldn’t really have expected it to, because as I much as love the last few albums, I didn’t love them all at first either. This one is really growing on me quickly, and will almost certainly end up as one of my favorite three or four albums of the year.

    As for an entry point, if I was trying to turn someone on to Deerhunter, I’d probably suggest the Rainwater Cassette Exchange and Flourescent Gray EPs. They’re both pretty accessible (by Deerhunter’s standards), without really any filler. I think the ambient stuff on M/WEC and HD can be a little of a turn off for a first time listener, but they get better with some time. And I think Cryptograms makes a lot more sense after you already have a feel for Deerhunter.

    • Rainwater, I think, is the perfect place to start. 15 minutes, 5 songs, and a range of styles. “Circulation” is one of my favorite songs of theirs.

    • My first experience of deerhunter was when a buddy of mine let me borrow a copy of cyptograms and i was not a fan. at all. then microcastle/weird era came out and the nothing ever happens song hooked me, and i pretty much listened to microcastle exclusively. slowly afterwards i wanted more and weird era eventually wore me down and later i revisited cryptomgrams and was all right on!

      Reminds me of the episode of seinfeld when george leaves behind his sable hat at his lady friends apartment:
      “You know they way I work, Im like a commercial jingle. First its a little irritating, then you hear it a few times, you hum it in the shower, by the third date its By Mennen!”

    • Cryptograms takes a while to get used to in its entirety, but it is by far my favourite record of theirs. If I was introducing someone to Deerhunter I would play them only the last 5 songs (SIDE C) on Cryptograms, my most played side of Vinyl ever.

  2. wow, i can’t wait hear to this record…good article, even though the last line made me LOLz

  3. Pundt’s reliable-as-always “The Missing” stands out, as does “Pensacola,” which has a Meat Puppets II vibe going for it. I like this so far. Is it as good as the previous three? Well, I can’t really tell yet. Some of these songs might not stick in the long run, and who knows, maybe I’ll get tired of hearing Cox breathe into the microphone. But for now, it sounds pretty cool. Hopefully it just gets better from here.

  4. Disappointing lack of Lockett Pundt-appreciation in this article. (Keep it for the Deerhunter retrospective, I guess.) I would argue he’s as integral to the band’s sound, albeit in a much subtler way, than Cox.

    This is already a great album. Two highlights for me are “The MIssing” and “T.H.M.” (but it’s allllll good).

    • I thought the same thing while reading the first paragraph. If we’re going to throw in Atlas Sound, why not Lotus Plaza? The Pundt led songs on Halcyon were my favorites.

      Other than that, I enjoy the review and the album is amazing.

    • “the missing” has been on repeat since i heard this album. lockett has such a subtle but effective delivery that give all his songs an emotional kick. great album

    • Yeah, there should have been recognition of Lotus Plaza. I like Atlas Sound, but it was never the way I felt about a proper Deerhunter release—pure love. However, I always thought Bradford was the genius behind it all. Then Lotus Plaza came out with Spooky Action at a Distance and it clicked—that’s more Deerhunter than Atlas Sound. Deerhunter need Lockett Pundt to exist.

    • My two fave tracks, though they’re all solid. The record keeps getting better with every listen.

  5. Agree about THM, The Missing, and Pensacola. And, surprisingly, a good write-up with somewhat developed ideas and noticeable references(i like the T-Rex). Hard to say, for me, if it equals Halcyon Digest, but the sentiment that we are witnessing a van der Rohe or Messi, constantly shape-shifing while creating brilliance, is one to which I’ll whole-heartedly subscribe. The last line made me laugh too.

  6. I already gushed about how obsessed I am with this album in the stream story, so this time I’ll provide a visual:

  7. For some reason I found this album a bit harder to get into than other Cox/Deerhunter releases – when I finally did, though, it was glorious.

    I think the only thing missing, the thing that really made HD stand out IMO as Cox’s best so far, are the songs on HD that conjure an incredible sense of nostalgia. Songs like “Desire Lines,”He Would Have Laughed,” and especially “Helicopter” are perfect examples of this. Granted, they’re obviously a totally different style than Cox was going for on Monomania, but they’re the ones I find myself returning to the most.

  8. I gave this thing more than a few listens and although I am not a huge Deerhunter fan (I really think along with Animal Collective are a simple either ya like or ya don’t band) but will say I do have all of their albums (both bands). This is merely because the alternative music landscape cannot exist without them due to both the cult and critical following they possess which makes it virtually impossible to ignore them even if ya tried. I know this makes me a less qualified Deerhunter listener than most but at least might prove to myself that I continue to keep a musically open mind to how all good bands evolve, ya know, just in case they reel it in for me, personally.

    That being said, I thought this was by far their most accessible and melodic record to date. I almost think it kinda fumbles along not really sure where it wants to anchor down until I’d say Dream Captain and then to its very well structured mid section. Once that happens, this mouthful just settles into into a truly great and very emotionally powerful album. You can tell these guys are fightin some individual demons, especially Cox, and it shows here in gorgeous fashion.
    It’s the subtleties within, say, Sleepwalking and Nitebike that really support their newly found sturdy approach to greater hooks and now branded, immediate noise pop angle. There’s a supreme tip to the cap to ageless influences like George Harrison, Bowie, NY Dolls, and (don’t cringe) yes, even Beck here, merely because I can’t remember a band/musician that fused classic psych-punk together with brash, grainy folk more cohesively. There is true beauty in this rat nest and that now gives them a huge melodic advantage.

    Great article/assessment. I wasn’t a devoted Deerhunter follower before, but this album and article makes it impossible not to tag along for the ride now. What it’ll also do is make me go back and take listen to their discography again with new ears now, and that only tells me how enduring a band they grow to become.

  9. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see

    • I disagree about HD. I think that record is great. I like this new one too. DH and BC are the best!

    • Thank you. I feel like I’m the only one that didn’t fall in love with Halcyon Digest. I say this as a huge fan. HD is just not close to the greatness of Microcastle, Weird Era Cont., Cryptograms and the EP’s.

  10. I’ve spent the last 2-3 weeks listening to this almost non-stop. Being an avid Deerhunter fan (own all releases, side projects, demos, etc.) I have to come to my own conclusion that this is their 2nd best album. Nothing will probably ever top Microcastle for me, but the messiness of this album is truly grand. There’s not a single bad song on here in my opinion. This seems to be a culmination of everything both influential parties (Lockett and Cox) have done leading up to this. It’s most definitely their rock record, an album that will no doubt solidify them even more so than they already are.

    I know that the bump beyond Halcyon Digest seems a bit premature since this is the new album. But I was instantly enthralled with the record, which seems to be rare amongst most listeners. I think it’s wonderful. More chaotic but more accessible. More Deerhunter, more Atlas Sound, and more Lotus Plaza, all rolled into one album. AOTY for me, and I have a sinking suspicion that it’ll top a lot of critics lists this year too.

    • I can’t wait to hear the bloody thing in full tonight!!! I adored Halycon Digest and loved the more lulling textures and melodies, but I think the more abrasive elements of this record sound to be just as exciting!

  11. This one seems to be exceeding expectations, so I’m psyched! the record should be coming in the mail any day now, so I’ll have to wait a while longer…

  12. I don’t think I’d say this tops Microcastle, let alone Halcyon Digest, but it’s still an insanely strong album and a welcome addition to the consistently-stellar Deerhunter canon.

  13. I feel like 10 of the 12 tracks (if not, all of them) on this album could be any one person’s favorite. They are all great in their own right. Every time I listen to the album I have a new favorite song.

  14. Monomania is a dud. Noisy, uninspired and almost unlistenable at times. Such a disappointment coming on the heels of Halcyon Digest, Spooky Action and Parallax. Maybe it will grow on me.

    That being said, The Missing is pretty great.

    • I won’t downvote you like the others just because we disagree, but that’s a lot of certainty in such an opinionated sentence. I’d give it a few more spins. Maybe it’ll grow on you like it did for me (I thought it was noisy and lacking melodies at first, but it cleared up with more listens), maybe it won’t – but my guess is that either way it won’t be regarded as a ‘dud.’

      • Very true Hartford, and even aside from that, I didnt think there even needed to be mention of this band being too ‘noisy’ or come off to seem ‘uninspired.’ Its a compliment actually. They revel in coming across with that slackers disposition.

        Personally, I thought this thing sung like a canary immediately, and it didn’t even require multiple listens to grow on me. Their brillo pad attack is almost endearing when offset with the contradicting mellow drops.

        • Couldn’t agree more. It was instant for me. Maybe it’s because of how much I adore this band and their side projects, but on that first listen I was pretty much in heaven. I didn’t have any expectations going into it, and was left feeling completely satisfied by it, more so than the first time I listened to Microcastle or Halcyon Digest.

    • Yeah. Deerhunter is one of my favorite bands, I keep trying to like this but I just don’t. There are a few good tracks, but so much of it sounds either uninspired or a complete rehash of old melodies/songs.

  15. Premature Evaluation? More like Overdue Evaluation.

    Cox seems to have the worst luck when it comes to leaks.

    I am really diggin’ this record, so far I feel it’s better than Halcyon but a bit below Microcastle. Time shall tell.


  16. It’s hard to say this, but this is the first Deerhunter that I don’t love. I’ll still buy it, but it does sound like they were trying too hard to find a new sound and in the process didn’t fully develop something new.
    My hopes were high after the Fallon performance, but after 30 listens it stills disappoints. It sounds like underdeveloped demos but with out Weird Era’s Magic. Maybe all those years hanging out and playing with the Black Lips rubbed off.
    The songs that sound like old Deerhunter, such as the missing, sound out of place and its the first release with actually bad songs. This is Bradfords 11 th release in the last 8 years so it’s understandable. Still my favourite band of the 00′s.

    • I certainly respect that (although I disagree about it having bad songs), but I wish you were feeling what I feel when I hear Monomania because it is some kind of magic. I’m starting to feel like this might be my favorite Deerhunter release because it is easily the most punchy and…cohesive).

  17. I miss Josh Fauver!

  18. i like this album a lot and though i don’t think it’s their best that’s certainly a subjective matter. but I do think the assertion that “monomania” is the best song the band has written deserves contention . i don’t have another candidate and i like the track but come on

  19. If you think that Monomania is a better song than Spring Hall Convert, than your ears aren’t working correctly. Also, I’m not quite sure why no one wants to talk about the fact that Lockett Pundt is a much better songwriter than Bradford Cox is.

    • Did Pundt write Agoraphobia? I’ve never been able to figure this out, since Cox sings it live/Pundt sings on record. THAT (+ Cover Me Slowly intro) is probably my favorite Deerhunter song.

      • According to Wikipedia Pundt wrote Agoraphobia and they both wrote Cover Me Slowly together.

      • Cox has said that he wrote the lyrics after a german ad about a kid wanting an older german man to bury him alive. The melody was written by Cox though.

        • alright I remember reading this interview now (pitchfork I think)

          The lyrics do sound like Bradford’s type of subject matter.

          Just goes to show they are a great team together.

      • Cox has said that he wrote the lyrics after a german ad about a kid wanting an older german man to bury him alive. The melody was written by pundt though

  20. I’m surprised that no one ever mentions how much Bradford seems to be influenced by the Velvet Underground. This is the predominant influence I hear throughout all Deerhunter records.

    • Yeah, I hear the Velvets aesthetic all over this record and loving it. Also, T.H.M. totally nails the first Talking Heads album. The understated, whispery Byrne jangles, Weymouth inspired bass line and Harrison type electric piano and subtle guitar. Fantastic song.

  21. Oh and this record is great, it sounds like messy, jumbled noise at first but if you keep listening the melodies are there and they’re as good as ever. I’d say that this is their second most accessible album behind Halcyon Digest even though I think this is their most immediately gratifying album, if that makes sense.

  22. Love Deerhunter. Love this album, and not sure where I would rank it yet.

    For me the standout tracks have been Blue Agent and Dream Captain, and Back to the Middle. Those three tend to capture the entire catalog of their influences all at once.

  23. Need more TV performances….

  24. This is a great record. Love the production/live feel.

  25. To me, this seems like the least personal of all the Deerhunter albums… There are some musically great moments, but some incredibly trite lyrical moments. Dream Captain for instance seems like a song that would panned if it were released by an un-established band. There are some good melodies on here, and I appreciate the fact that they’re wearing their influences on their sleeves but all these great reviews seem like they’re simply lauding them for being a tribute band that writes original songs.

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