Watching a band mature into greatness in real time is always a thrill. Microcastle, which turned 10 years old over the weekend, is a snapshot of such a transformation in full swing. Wedged between Deerhunter’s promise-affirming sophomore set Cryptograms and their career pinnacle Halcyon Digest, the album is the sound of Making The Leap, of indie-rock hero-worshippers becoming legends in their own right. It is the first honest-to-God classic album from one of the finest bands of their generation.
No shots at Cryptograms, mind you. It’s just that up until Microcastle, Deerhunter’s provocations largely overshadowed their music — or at least they did for me. I knew them as the band fronted by a lanky bigmouthed man in a dress, wailing and flailing his way through SXSW showcases while his bandmates conjured noisy record-collector rock. Bradford Cox’s unique persona has always loomed large over Deerhunter, and at a time when their primordial soup of influences was still cooking, his antics were easier to latch onto than any one Deerhunter song. Cryptograms, in retrospect, is a killer album, an atmospheric head trip where darkness lurks around every corner. Its mix of shoegaze, psych, krautrock, and various pillars of the indie canon is potent. Give it a spin sometime if you haven’t. The Fluorescent Grey EP too, while you’re at it.
But not before you bask once more in the glory of Microcastle. Here was an album that maintained early Deerhunter’s immersive sprawl, but with a softer touch and some tentpole anthems that snapped the delirious haze into focus. The project owes its classic status in no small part to two songs in particular, the quasi-opener “Agorophobia” and the late-breaking stunner “Nothing Ever Happened.” Notably, neither one was primarily written by Cox, which goes to show how much of a group effort Deerhunter has always been despite his role out front on stage and in the press.
“Agorophobia,” which really begins with grandiose prologue “Cover Me (Slowly),” is the musical handiwork of Lockett Pundt, Cox’s closest lieutenant, who can always be counted on for at least one masterful contribution to each Deerhunter album. A steady river of sound, it surges along with increasing intensity as new sounds ripple across its surface. The track sets a comparatively placid tone that the rest of Microcastle adheres to, despite lyrics — penned by Cox, sung by Pundt — about desperately wanting to lock yourself away and disappear forever to protect yourself from the world’s ills. Consider it a paranoiac lullaby — and one of the great album introductions of the aughts.
The other monster jam, a contender for the title of Deerhunter’s best, is “Nothing Ever Happened.” Cox’s narrative traces the life of a poor single mother whose mundane life ends tragically, but more than most Deerhunter songs, the lyrics feel extremely secondary on this one. Sonically it’s one of the band’s most muscular, awe-inspiring displays. A wisp of feedback quickly gives way to driving drums and bass and cascades of guitar. Then, before a minute has gone by, the whole intense buildup flips sideways into an entirely different groove. By the end of the next minute, they’ve cycled through two verse-chorus cycles and are off to the races with a pulsing, pounding motorik rave-up that grows more beautiful by the measure. It’s no wonder drummer Moses Archuleta and bassist Josh Fauver are credited as writers here; on an often spare, shapeless album, “Nothing Ever Happened” is the rhythm section’s tour de force.
Although those two are the obvious attention-grabbers, Microcastle is built on more. It may not seem that way on first listen. Reviewing the album for Pitchfork at the time, Marc Hogan wisely noted that Deerhunter releases are “conceived to be more than the sum of their parts.” That’s definitely how this one operates, making liberal, pointed use of mood pieces in a way that alternately soothes and confounds me.
Although the LP sides don’t exactly line up this way, you can think of “Agorophobia” and “Nothing Ever Happened” as the launchpads for the album’s two major movements, like a pair of big bangs that launch us on different phases of our journey. After the former, Microcastle slides from the punchy, hallucinogenic garage rocker “Never Stops” to the creepier, more languid “Little Kids” and on down to a mid-album stretch of four straight impressionistic swoons. The title track, at least, builds to a euphoric conclusion, but the rest rarely rises above a whisper. Cox coos and whimpers his way through disturbing scenes of skulls, crucifixion, and wasted life, his elusiveness mirroring the music’s ghostly, untouchable quality.
This is admittedly not my favorite part of Microcastle, but (and this may be the Deerhunter stan in me talking) I’ve come to appreciate both the spell it casts and how it sets the stage for “Nothing Ever Happens” to rouse listeners out of hypnosis. If nothing else it’s a testament to Cox’s stubbornly perverse creative instincts, interrupting his poppiest album yet to send listeners on a detour into the depths of his consciousness. And anyhow, anyone who makes it this far into Microcastle is richly rewarded with an awesome concluding stretch.
After “Nothing Ever Happened” comes the album’s final section, a triad of increasingly dramatic closing tracks. “Saved By Old Times” — Cox’s ode to the dusty records that inform Deerhunter’s aesthetic, but also apparently a complex story about culture vultures and growing up in isolation — progresses from gnarled bluesy rock to a focused mirage, as if he’s he’s losing himself in the music that saved his life. Pundt’s “Neither Of Us, Uncertainly” could easily work is a triumphant finale, but it’s followed up by “Twilight At Carbon Lake,” an even grander and more thunderous sprawl. It reminds me of the way Sigur Ros stacked epic upon epic to close out ( ) — sending listeners into fits of ecstasy only to circle back and up the ante.
Microcastle may have been inspired by decades’ worth of retro rock music, but it’s unmistakably a product of its time in at least one way: The album leaked so far in advance of its official release that Deerhunter went back and recorded a second album to reward fans who actually purchased the record. That album, Weird Era Cont., leaked before the release date as well due to Cox accidentally revealing his Mediafire account, subverting the bonus disc’s entire purpose for existence. (Weird Era Con’t. “was supposed to be a surprise and actually make the idea of an ‘Album Release Date’ fun,” Cox wrote at the time.) Listeners can be grateful for the companion LP anyhow because it offers up a significantly different Deerhunter experience, a patchwork Amnesiac to accompany Microcastle’s focused and ambitious Kid A archetype.
It speaks to the level Deerhunter were operating on at this point that they could kick out a batch of songs as rewarding as Weird Era Cont. on short notice. The tracklist spans haphazard dance-punk (“Operation”), full-fledged shoegaze (“Vox Celeste”), Can-inspired psych (“Dot Gain”), ambient (“Cicadas” and “Weird Era”), deconstructed piano-pop (“Vox Humana” and “Moon With Cartridge”), and more, putting this band’s unmistakable stamp on each sound. Next to Microcastle it feels minor, but if they released it today it’d be widely hailed as Deerhunter’s return to form — which would be a wrongheaded take since Monomania and Fading Frontier are both incredible records, but that’s a whole other essay. For our purposes, just appreciate that after delivering a career-making record, this band turned around and cranked out another one nearly as good on short notice. They were in the zone. It was beautiful to behold.