For the aggressively misanthropic, the outsiders in whatever sense of the word, for the unwilling obsessives, for the belligerent, the barbed, the warlike, for those who never stop trying to fashion crude a world of their own, Deerhunter has always offered respite. Monomania is the safest haven.
Monomania, in the smelter of Deerhunter discography, is the band’s most confounding work, a collection of reverent rock ‘n’ roll songs sculpted nearly to the bone, knotted in lyrical enigma, and layered in lofi grit—a puzzling juke from a band that seemed to be headed straight to clear, consistent formula. To be fair, Deerhunter never shied away from perplexing listeners as they straddled the indie-art-punk-noise scene, since their 2005 debut. Their 2007 critical and commercial breakthrough was called Cryptograms, for god’s sake, as much as inviting their songs to be “solved.” Even so, Cryptograms was almost over-personal thematically, navigating how frontman Bradford Cox had grappled with his youth, with death, with intimacy, still holding the listener at arm’s length across hallucinatory walls of ambient guitar and Motorik grooves. As the band sold a remarkable 50,000 copies in the US alone, they let loose some pent-up excitement that became fabled live shows.
To many, this indicated the band’s cemented members— Cox, guitarist Lockett Pundt, and drummer Moses Archuleta—actually had something more urgent to say than countless tepid indie rock acts in a mid-aughts dearth of edge. They since mellowed; as the band matured, so too did its sound and cohesion. The surprise double release of Microcastle and Weird Era Cont. in 2008 begged interrogation to how this group could be so prolific, as they reached out while rarely over-sharing. That poppy, spacey, shoegazey release showed Deerhunter peeling away a few layers in favor of more solid songwriting, broader insights, and constructed choruses, bridges, and rhymes. Then almost out of nowhere, coming off an undefined hiatus and a cache of solo work, the band’s incredible 2010 Halcyon Digest LP was an exercise in transparency, giving the clearest picture of what an unfettered Deerhunter could do: lyrically bracingly honest, sonically raw and clear, politically never shying away, compositionally blown wide open. Halcyon Digest fascinated, if anything, for just how much could be exposed.
As opposed to that pure brace, Monomania offers a filthy opacity that raises more questions than it answers. It has the unforced feel of a group of experimentalists comfortable with one another, shooting for gutter-low stakes because it’s more fun than the polished, ambitious compositions of their previous album. This sense of soiled ease pervades despite high expectations, as well as the resources of producer Nicolas Vernhes’ Rare Book Room studios in Brooklyn, where the album was made—the entire thing was made on Tascam 8-track recorders.
On first listen, Monomania brings to mind the haphazard, patchwork texture of Pussy Galore’s 1986 Exile on Main St., a perfectly fractured collection, storied in its perverse reverence of the band’s forbearers. There is a definite “what the fuck?” rock homage going on on both. Each track rings distinct. Some are mastered harshly, some glistening with compression. It’s a consistent appropriation. That’s not only in the various sounds, but also in the Monomania promotion cycle—During a recent press conference, Cox refused to answer what “T.H.M.,” the title of a Monomania calypso-tinged memorial ballad, stands for. How very Dylan of him.
What seems slapdash on first listen appears more and more calculated with each play. This is a narrative album about the desperation of making art, about the pressure of trying to uncover the beauty and worth in what you yourself have created, “finding the fluorescence in the junk,” as the album-opening “Neon Junkyard” introduces. It tells the story of coming to terms with the limited utility one finds surrounding and how to fashion that into tenable character. Monomania goes on to frame Cox’s turmoil as coming to terms with the success of this band, while still trying to keep hold of his essence. Certainly he’s been acting like a rock star for some time now. All his fecal and faux-fellatio and gender-bending antics need hardly be recapped. They reached a symbolic climax with a recent performance of “Monomania” on Late Night: at the end of the song, a Ramone-wigged Bradford stalks away from the stage as the rest of the band chants the title over and over, the song exploding into space dust. Bradford leaves the soundstage and waits for the elevator. He’s given everything over to this. And now he’s gone. And it is miserably fascinating to watch him disappear.
“Send me an angel/If you can't send me an angel/send me something else instead,” he pleads on the title track. The first half of the line quotes Pet Shop Boys and apes dozens of others through the years. It’s a typical, storied rock ‘n’ roll sentiment. He wants not for flesh; he wants for comfort. In the second half of the lyric, by resigning to whatever comes his way, pining for anything at all, it shades loneliness. Cox expresses the same sentiment inwardly that mythologized rock stars once expressed outwardly, through over-consumption, substance abuse, waste. So for Bradford on Monomania, an album named for the frontman’s obsessive art-making tendencies, it’s the inverse. Monomania is about the underlying truth to a life in exhibition. This is draining. He just needs more, new ideas. That’s the only refuge now.
Every track is the twisted backside of the once-decadent promise of rock music. It’s the nadir. Deerhunter have flipped the idiomatic rock record on its head. Against the Monomania, songs take simple constructions, often grounded in acoustic guitar, and are barely padded in the seesaw rhythms of the band’s new bassist, Josh McKay. Elsewhere riffs are hard-edged, but tend to soften as the album goes on. Vocals are pushed through as much overdrive and distortion as the electric guitars. Across the release, Archuleta is as charmingly inept as ever, keeping beats and fills stripped. That’s best heard on “Pensacola,” a bass-beat road-trip garage-rock classicist. Here, for the first time, this Georgia-based band sounds like they’re actually from Georgia—multi-instrumentalist Frankie Broyles provides a Delta slide, giving “Pensacola” a blues-punkabilly feel not totally far from The Cramps. The next track, “Dream Captain” begs for a somnambulist spur over revolving guitar lines. “I could fly or sink and die,” Cox snarls, looking for inspiration to scribble down, even in his sleep. On “Blue Agent” he’s shut out an old friend to “hide his glory away/in the basement room,” a nod to a consistent split-level Deerhunter setting. “When a decade is spent searching for something time will never bring,” he sings on “Sleepwalking,” a song ostensibly about writing songs, “something starts to shut down inside/my body and my tired mind/too horrified to see.” He can’t even open his eyes until he finds the right melody. “Sleepwalking” seems to be the most sonically and thematically realized on the album. On the nearly perfect “Back To Middle,” he tells the cycle of having and losing, where he as much as begs, again, to keep anything in his possession, even though “it’s all accidental.” Even the classically clean, Lockett-led “The Missing” is about a certain lack of fulfillment. “Nitebike,” the album’s penultimate track, has Cox alone, wandering through melody on the motorcycle we hear rev up at the end of “Monomania.” It’s just him and an acoustic guitar. By isolating Cox here, “on the cusp of a breakthrough,” it gives a sense of revelation to his craze. The song is gorgeous.
The final track, “Punk (La Vie Antérieure),” is a logical epilogue. It acknowledges a foregone devotion to an aesthetic, giving credit to Charles Baudelaire’s poem in the title translating to “A Past Life.” “Their only charge was to increase the anguish/Of secret grief in which I loved to languish,” read the last lines of one translation of Baudelaire’s poem, regarding scores of naked fawns. By styling himself as an idealized and compulsive frontman throughout the record, and giving it all up to inspiration, Cox becomes a tragic rock anti-hero. But it’s a failed defense mechanism in a world where his achievements have become so focused that nothing outside of the self remains, that all—including his own songs—lay the potential to attack. Even this art-making exercise begins to fail him. It’s everything to just let go. His reprieve is returning to the refuge of the band.
Despite so overtly affected persona across the release, Cox and Deerhunter have found a universal specificity at the core of this obsession. That is the self-imposed challenge of Monomania, of a life so singularly engrossed with output one can forget who he actually is. The impressions are so carefully managed, the expectations so thoroughly combed, it’s hard to grasp anything personal in this jet of ideas—the more handed to the audience, the less that remains of the self. The achievement here is conveying that at the center is a simple desperation to be understood. You can’t fault Deerhunter for using the tools they know best to express a basic need to communicate, even wigged and bathed in neon. Because, reaching out, we all manage our identities. All we have is impression—Facebook pages, fleeting Snapchats, Twitter bios, links to filtered selfies in a ceaseless stream. At the heart still lies the vulnerable expression that “I just want to belong.”
Deerhunter's Monomania is out now on 4AD.