Deerhunter - Monomania
"I wish we were the fucking Strokes" is how Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox described his ambitions to Under The Radar in 2008 just after the release of the band's third album Microcastle. In hindsight, it's an endearing admission. People like to pretend they don't have influences and heroes, like saying Band A sounds like Band B meets Band C is a musician's taboo. But as much as Bradford wanted to be the Strokes circa 2000, Deerhunter's music has always been brazenly original and ever-changing. Where in the past they've been associated with a wide palette of genres from ambient punk, to shoegaze, to noise rock, the Atlanta band has at last lopped off the remaining tendrils rooting them to their past. On Monomania, Deerhunter finally sound like themselves.
If that implies they've abandoned referencing the musicians they idolize, I've spoken too soon. Five years removed from his Strokes wish, Cox seems to have found the sweet spot between haunting, ramshackle rock n' roll, and the punk attitude (dubbed "nocturnal garage") that Casablancas & Co. haven't been able to match in over a decade. Opener 'Neon Junkyard' and album highlight 'Sleepwalking' are intensely indebted to the structures and textures established on Is This It, with Cox's disaffected voice meandering around pulsating rhythmic guitar. Both albums were recorded in New York City, and based on photos from recording sessions, it's almost as if Cox was deliberately attempting to emulate the dark basement studio where Is This It was made, mixed with his own psychotic neon-lit vision.
Things reach nightmare-mode fairly quickly. 'Leather Jacket II', the second track on the album, features Bradford's heavily distorted and echoed voice running circles around a squealing lead guitar that eventually dissolves into arrhythmic cacophony. However the next song, 'The Missing', is a startling change of pace. As the only track on Monomania to feature guitarist Lockett Pundt on vocals, it ends up sounding like an (excellent) lost cut from his solo project Lotus Plaza. But it's almost too saccharine for a record full of lines like "Took two bullets to the brain / My kid brother, he was insane" and "Neon rust is coloring the blood," it ends up being the only track that consistently feels out of place through each listen.
Which is almost funny considering the next song, 'Pensacola' is a country-tinged barnyard stomper complete with steel slide guitar. Despite being the biggest stylistic departure in Deerhunter's discography to date, it works relatively well. Deerhunter are, by geographical definition, a Southern rock band, so it's almost surprising that it took them this long to experiment with country. 'Dream Captain' is unfortunately stale though, missing both the raw attitude of the more aggressive material as well as the more pop-oriented, hook-filled tracks like 'Sleepwalking' or 'Neon Junkyard'. If not immediately catchy, it's maybe the only two song sequence in their entire discography that forces you to questions your expectations of a Deerhunter song by diverging so much from past releases.
The first four tracks on Monomania then represent the entire spectrum of Deerhunter: from 'Leather Jacket II''s aggressive, wailing noise to the shimmering breeze of 'The Missing', the album's first half is significantly more fragmented than the second half, which is a relieving settlement into more familiar Deerhunter-esque songs. If any element ties all 12 tracks here together, it's a prevailing essence of rawness, not just in energy, but in sonic quality as well. There are references to their own past work, like the harsh, anxious noise on their debut album Turn It Up Faggot, but also to other past bands and artists: the Stooges, the Ramones, Pavement, the Strokes, David Bowie, Bo Diddley. Cox has been especially clear of the Bo Diddley influence on Monomania, which is apparent in the blown-out guitar sound and Cox's own distorted voice. But generally the influences come across in more conceptual, structural ways rather than directly in the music.
The claim that these 12 songs were whittled down from 250 or more demo tracks recorded over a three year period would be a bit of an exaggeration coming from anyone but Cox. But considering he spent the better part of his blogging years releasing free mixtapes, singles, and EPs of Atlas Sound and Deerhunter demos weekly, it's clear he has the material. Cox is a true songwriter in a world where songwriters have been deemed irrelevant. A classic frontman, his eccentricities can be either endearing or terrifying depending on the day, and his outbursts of unfiltered hysteria (like the infamous 'My Sharona' incident) have become arguably as well-known as his music. Whether that cheapens the message or delivery of his music is beside the point; Cox is the closest thing to a real rock star that we've had in years.
Monomania's greatest accomplishment then is how well it incorporates the best elements of its predecessors without ever coming across as derivative or unoriginal. Like Deerhunter's live shows, Monomania is unpredictable and chaotic. A consistently rewarding achievement, Monomania is a fascinating addition to Deerhunter's extended catalog that (including side projects) features at least one album released every year since 2007. It's a raw, emotional, swirling tornado of energy and push-pull restraint from a band who has become more necessary with each passing year of global uncertainty. If nothing else, Monomania makes a solid case for defining Deerhunter as an essential group; one of the great modern American rock bands.
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