“I want to be the Patti Smith of now, with something like ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Nigger’ blaring out of kids’ speakers. I fantasize about that, but I’m not going to be that. I’m just not that dangerous,” Bradford Cox told me in an interview for The Big Takeover back in 2008. While it’s defeatist to live in a world measuring yourself to your idols, Cox has carved out an idiosyncratic, challenging, and even dangerous milieu for himself making great records, from the rather underwhelming Turn It Up Faggot in 2005, on through his newest, released this week, the absolutely stunning Monomania.
Cox early on favored wearing dresses, drinking heavily, and maintained a heavy Internet presence via the band’s blog, somewhat overshadowing the spectacular triumph of 2007’s Cryptograms, and its sister EP Fluorescent Grey. To his credit he’s pulled the reins back on the band’s social media visibility, now allowing the music to largely speak for itself.
2008’s Microcastle was glorious distillation of Cox’s love of rock music, jettisoning his effects pedal fascination in favor of a crisp rock sound as informed by the Rolling Stones as Pylon. “I tried heavy-handedly to make a populist record,” he told me then. The album featured some of the band’s finest songs to date, and was unified by prototypical Deerhunter motifs: vulnerability, existential dread, and mortality.
The band crafted a lush, more expansive record in 2010’s Halcyon Digest. It wasn’t as cohesive as Microcastle, but the high points easily outstripped the best its predecessor had to offer.
The protracted delay (at least in terms of Deerhunter’s standards) between Halcyon and Monomania was somewhat attributable to Cox entering into a period of heavy drinking, brought on by “some bad personal shit happening,” according to a recent Pitchfork story. He also stated in the interview that he considered scrapping the material, but listening to the fruits of the sessions, it’s clear that he would’ve been throwing away something incredibly unique in the Deerhunter canon.
It’s a skuzzy, sleazy rock ‘n’ roll record, indebted to the disparate likes of the Stooges, Bo Diddley, Hank Williams, and David Bowie, bringing back an element of danger in rock ‘n’ roll, as Cox has gleaned from his idols, and it’s a gas to blast loud. But Cox surely also realizes that the likes of Leonard Cohen, the quiet side of The Velvet Underground, R.E.M., and the Beatles have also created some of the most dangerous music of the past 40 years. Aggression and theatrics aren’t tantamount to danger — well-crafted, intelligent songs that challenge listeners are. Cox and Deerhunter possess those in spades, with or without the amps cranked to 11. Here are my picks for the 10 best Deerhunter songs. Please share yours in the comments.
10. “Monomania” (From Monomania, 2013)
Cox’s singular musical obsession wavered during the lengthy break between Halcyon Digest and Monomania, and ended up turning to alcohol to self-medicate. The album’s title track, “Monomania,” ultimately serves as a reclamation of sorts, a pronouncement that his single-mindedness has returned. He assumes an Iggy Pop-circa “I Wanna Be Your Dog” snarl throughout the incendiary track, spitting out the invective lyrics, “There is a man/ There is a mystery whore/ And in my dying days/ I can never be sure,” with fire-and-brimstone bile. He preened like Curt Wild from Velvet Goldmine during the band’s recent Jimmy Fallon performance, but at the heart of “Monomania” is anything but theater — it’s all fresh blood and spilled guts.
9. “Twilight At Carbon Lake” (From Microcastle, 2008)
Cox indicated to me in our Big Takeover interview circa Microcastle that the notion of twilight terrified him, as it served as a reminder his own mortality. “Twilight At Carbon Lake” addresses this terror head-on, finding Cox, seemingly mystified, crooning, “Go to the ocean on a ship/ Wave goodbye to the waves and the frozen shit that was in your heart,” over an arpeggiated melody redolent of the Everly Brothers. The track explodes into a dissonant cacophony as Cox concedes, “Go away/ Time Slows/ So Long.” It’s a grandiose kiss-off, and he seems as though he can hardly wait to take the waiting ship onward to the great beyond.
8. “Memory Boy” (From Halcyon Digest, 2010)
Something of a Tom Petty via mid-period R.E.M. homage, “Memory Boy” is perhaps the closest thing Deerhunter have to a jangle-pop anthem. It figures into the litany of songs Bradford Cox has written that recall a less-than-idyllic childhood, as he recollects with painstaking detail, “That October he came over every day/ The smell of looseleaf joints and we would play/ It’s not a house anymore.” It again plays into the sun motif so prevalent in Cox’s material, as he regretfully laments, “Is there anyone who wants to see the sun go down, down, down?,” as if something pure has been irrevocably undone.
7. “Never Stops” (From Microcastle, 2008)
“Never Stops” seems as though it was written in the throes of deep clinical depression. Its desperately moribund lyrics of “My escape/ Would never come” and “Winter in my heart/ It never stops” are obviously not garden variety Seasonal Affective Disorder. There’s sheer desperation found in full-throttle anthemic instrumentation, as if the repetitive jackhammer force of a guitar can shake the blues away. They don’t, but like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest attempting to tear the sink out of the wall, Cox and company nonetheless give it hell, and in the process provide us with one of Microcastle’s finest songs.
6. “Spring Hall Convert” (From Cryptograms, 2007)
One of many songs in Deerhunter’s canon exploring high school ennui, Cox finds a lucid dreamlike escape as he fantasizes of existing “In a radio freeze occupied by a couple girls I knew from way back when,” in Michael Stipe-esque free association mode. The track’s insistently melodic, with alchemical tinges of psychedelia, like Spacemen 3 covering Pavement’s “Shady Lane.” It’s rife with spring-coiled tension, threatening to blow its lid at any moment. Thankfully it doesn’t, preserving the cloistered dread that renders it so damn compelling.
5. “Helicopter” (From Halcyon Digest, 2010)
The metronomic beat in “Helicoper” turns what could have easily been an overtly histrionic dirge into an empathetic character sketch. Like the doctor’s steady heartbeat in Raymond Carver’s short story “A Small, Good Thing” contradicting his expression of grief to the mother that had suddenly lost her child, this steady pulsation tempers the high gravitas of the Dennis Cooper essay the track borrows its theme from. This gorgeous, slow-burning number recounts the last moments of a Ukranian sex slave’s life. As Cox intones, “Now they are through with me,” it’s like a bereft sigh of relief, indicating the degree to which the boy was resigned to his fate, finding a final, graceful repose as he falls from a helicopter to his death.
4. “T.H.M.” (From Monomania, 2013)
A wobbly lullaby with more than a passing resemblance to the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning,” “T.H.M.” is a woozy, vertiginous half-light rumination, at odds with much of Monomania’s balls-to-the-wall swagger. Cox describes the titular protagonist empathetically, explaining, “He came out a little late/ Maybe that’s where frustration’s born.” The celestial instrumentation belies sinister overtones, with intimations that a 3 a.m. phone call is an indication of something gone horribly wrong. Cox keeps it cryptic, intoning dejectedly, “I always knew that this day would come/ Hey you lose and you win some,” proceeding to seemingly find relief, repeating “T.H.M” at the song’s coda like a reveille.
3.”Fluorescent Grey” (From Fluourescent Grey EP, 2007)
In Buffy The Vampire Slayer, high school was ostensibly a portal to hell. This isn’t far off the truth for most, likely including Bradford Cox, as many of Deerhunter’s early songs obsess on the excruciating minutiae of those days. “Fluorescent Grey” specifically dwells on an all-consuming recognition of mortality. He awakens from a nightmare, calls out the object of his obsession’s name, and intones “patiently” repeatedly like he’s warding off a panic attack, wondering, “Why do I dream so often of his body when his body will decay/ His flesh will be fluorescent grey,” evoking the morose poetic sensibilities of author Dennis Cooper. He comes clean as he incants, “You were my god in high school,” as the track’s subsumed in a volcanic swirl of My Bloody Valentine-esque distortion, with Cox finding cold comfort at the song’s coda as he returns to the “Patiently” mantra, which progressively sounds less and less assuaging and more like a sepulchral presage.
2. “Strange Lights” (From Cryptograms, 2007)
On “Strange Lights,” Cox, extrapolating from a dream had by his longtime friend and bandmate Lockett Pundt, describes a long, slow walk into the sun alongside a companion, presumably Pundt. The journey, unfurling like an inversion of the fatalist Icarus myth, is colored by an explosive fireworks display of Nuggets-esque psych riffs. But while Icarus faced death for his hubris, Cox finds redemption in his fantasy, achieving divine sublimation, “rattled and stunned” as the pair ease their way into salvation.
1. “He Would Have Laughed” (From Halcyon Digest, 2010)
An affecting elegy to Jay Reatard, the schizoid “He Would Have Laughed,” begins with Cox slovenly declaring, “Only bored as I get older,” seemingly in the voice of Reatard. Limber guitar coruscations guide Cox as he drifts into non-sequitur territory, eerily proclaiming, “I’m a gold, gold digging man/ Find my money find my land,” before lamenting, “I can’t breathe with you looking at me,” finally returning the tune’s initial sentiment of ennui: “I get bored as I get older/ Can you help me figure this out.” An abrupt time signature ensues, as the track then veers into hallucinogenic fantasy, with Cox intoning, “I lived on a farm/ Yeah, I never lived on a farm,” perhaps alluding to the Reatard’s dual life as Jimmy Lee Lindsey Jr. and Jay Reatard, the latter providing little insight into the soul of the man himself. It’s a moving, sentimental tribute that never succumbs to treacle, ending abruptly without a fade out, like a door slamming in your face just as you were beginning to feel welcome.
Listen to this playlist on Spotify.