Premature Evaluation: 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.