Album Review: Deerhunter - Monomania

If he weren’t so dead-set on making music that could be deemed as capital “A” art, Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox could be a very good rock star. He’s outspoken, audacious, practically writes his own headlines, and is absolutely impossible to look away from when he brings his A-game (and, occasionally, when he doesn’t). So maybe it should come as a surprise that Monomania, the Georgia quintet’s sixth studio album, is their most accessible and amibitious album yet, and maybe it shouldn’t.

Since Deerhunter’s last album, 2010′s very good Halcyon Digest, both Cox and band co-leader Lockett Pundt released (also very good) solo albums (the gorgeous Parallax and Spooky Action at a Distance, respectively), and then, unusually for Cox, laid relatively low after their associated tours. So how did Deerhunter announce their return? With guns blazing, of course. Monomania, laid down on eight-track recording equipment with previous collaborator Nicolas Vernhes, eschews the shoegazey shimmer of those albums (and Halcyon) for a set of songs that are bright, twitchy, rough, and fascinating in an inexplicable, plastic-bag-dancing-in-the-wind way. The album’s twelve songs are spiky, provocative, and riotous, but also (relative to Deerhunter) catchy, efficient, and direct. Cox has never been one to shy away from making daring music, but Monomania is crafted with an unerring conviction that almost makes some of his prior work seem tame by comparison. It’s important to note that Pundt only has one writing credit here, because Monomania is very much The Bradford Cox Show. He’s always been the band’s driving force, but on Monomania, an album ostensibly named for Cox’s singular focus on music, his amount of influence/control over the band’s direction is more dominant than ever. (It’s worth mentioning that the only song not solely composed by Cox, Pundt’s “The Missing”, isn’t bad, but it would make more sense on a Lotus Plaza record rather than on Monomania.)

Notably, the songs on Cox’s self-declared “nocturnal garage” record clock in at an average of about three-and-a-half minutes. Even more telling is the spartan arrangements on Monomania; about half of these songs could work in an arrangement solely for acoustic guitar and vocals, and the other half of these songs would still work if they were covered in even more reverb. Songs like “Pensacola”, “Neon Junkyard”, and “Back To The Middle” are some of the most immediate songs in Cox’s catalog, but they’re tempered with a grimey production that ensures that none of these songs are going to be in iPod commercials anytime soon. They will, however, become instant live highlights. Historically, the peaks of Deerhunter’s live show have been the feedback-drenched extended versions of their headier tracks, particularly “Nothing Ever Happened” and “Helicopter“. Conversely, the title track roars from the very start with grungy, slashing chords and Cox’s prophetic screams (“In my head, there is something rotting dead!”, “Send me an angel!”), and then only after he’s exhausted himself of verses and shouted the title thirty or so time, the band proceeds to drown everything in feedback. But even without a squall of distortion and reverb, the songs on Monomania succeed in creating a vivid sketch of Cox’s florescent, leather-clad vision. The plinking, nearly sinster “T.H.M.”, “Nitebike” and “Blue Agent” showcase Cox’s increasingly evocative vocal performances, while “Leather Jacket II” and “Punk (La Vie Anterieure)” retain the band’s penchant for piling scrappy melodies on top of each other before escalating to an explosive climax. Although he’s taking a sharp stylistic turn on Monomania, Cox hasn’t forgotten what made Deerhunter great in the first place: uncompromising avant-garde tendencies matched with DIY-sensibility. What separates Monomania from the rest of the Deerhunter catalog is how its scope extends farther than Deerhunter’s current reach. It’s the most visceral thing the band has put to tape to date, and hints at greater ambitions than the band who made Halcyon Digest. They’re no longer satisfied with simply making a great album, because Deerhunter (and especially Cox) have bigger ambitions on the table now: Monomania is the first Deerhunter album to feel like an event, a genuine spectacle that demands to be heard.

In what seems to be the definitive press clipping for this album cycle, Cox told Buzzfeed that his greatest aspiration for Deerhunter 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.” With this in mind, it’s easier to get a grasp on Monomania; the album’s key elements - gospel-esque wailing, grandiose, dramatic lyrics, the equal presence of garage, punk, and avant garde traces - begin to stand out while still contributing to the album’s overall coherence. But, for better or worse, Monomania seems to exist in a vacuum. It doesn’t bear a significant resemblance to anything in the Cox/Pundt catalog, much less its immediate predecessors, and ultimately aligns more with the musical traditions of their native country than any of the aesthetic tendencies that their previous work embodied. As excellent as Monomania is, it comes off as Deerhunter’s take on America rather than the followup to Halcyon Digest. But maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe Deerhunter is the next great American band. They’ve got an entrancing frontman, two different and talented songwriters, and a rich, varied back catalog, so if they burnt out tomorrow, it’s pretty likely that they’re already immortalized in the indie rock pantheon. But for someone as ambitious as Cox, that’s probably not enough. Monomania isn’t Bradford Cox’s attempt at superstardom, it’s his shot at immortalizing himself in Georgia, in America, and most importantly, in his own eyes.

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