Music Reviews

Deerhunter Monomania

(4AD) Rating - 9/10

We never expect rock frontmen to act like themselves when they grace the stage. There’s a distinct separation between those who ooze stage presence with theatrical gestures, and those who strut around the stage with a swaggering self-assurance. It’s a challenge to exactly cubbyhole Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox in any of those descriptions, but one thing’s for certain, he does possess the ability to annoy and offend. Which, interestingly enough, can be measured in the same way we tend to brush those that make our lives unbearable, and sometimes unjustly so – he’s belligerent and opinionated, likes to test his audience with extended musical renditions, and vociferates an endless stream of contradictions. And yet he’s an inoffensive sort, the kind of performer who easily gets bored with his public self and relishes on being spontaneous, much to the chagrin of those who see him as an easy target due to his distinctive marfanoid appearance.

Cox’s constant tomfoolery has taken a lot of the attention, but it’s actually their brand of hazy psych-rock that mostly takes center stage. It’s their ability to interpose an oft-kilter, dreamy disintegration of melodic textures with rasping garage-punk that has made them evolve into a dominant force. All the while pushing the limits of pop songcraft behind deafening aggression, a combination that’s seldom heard, especially from a band that expresses a desire for critical reverence. But Deerhunter want to achieve success on their own terms, and in Monomania, are intent on turning in what’s sure to be their most divisive effort by going back to where they started. If there was any expectation about them prettifying their output even further for the sake of accessibility, which they were in the verge of, they consider testing their audience once again by becoming even more alienating. 

“Everything is the same as it was/But now there’s nothing left to change," a swaggering Cox declares as his voice is filled with delay effects in album opener Neon Junkyard, strumming a molten acoustic guitar around a nocturnal campfire sing-a-long. The titling of the song is appropriate with Cox’s dirty demeanor, as he’s smothering himself with worn-out rice plotting powder, channeling the glam rock gods with a shade of plastic soul. He deconstructs the language of glam whilst embracing it in Leather Jacket ii, sporting the greased-up look with a smoking, shuffling rhythm, mumbling a series of fragmented incoherencies you’d think he’s making fun of his self-purported transformation. This time around, Cox’s image seems to inform the course of his musical experimentation, as opposed to the idyllic ambiance that generally fades the performance aspect of the band into the background.

The raw immediacy of Monomania hits all cylinders in a twisting motion, and at first you’re never really sure about Cox’s motives as he veers along a dark street. “Well, I came from the delta down to the plains,” he shouts in the hellish swamp pop of Pensacola, further declaring defeat for the saloon-hall gal that doesn’t want his affection; the song effortlessly juxtaposes propulsive rockabilly with a honky-tonk arrangement, its rambunctious chug so in-your-face it’ll keep you in the spirit of chooglin’ for days. And then there’s the strutting elegance of Dream Captain, in which he dons the role of a shrill David Johansen as a bevy of pulpy Stones riffs almost oust the bouncy, Deerhunter-specific chord play. All of which hint at the propulsive pomposity of the title track, which boasts a Ramones-like chorus refrain over shards of jagged guitar lines that fringe together into a rousing coda.

As Monomania progresses, though, the songs begin to favor a contemplative simplicity that almost matches Cox’s more stark, intimate thoughts. It also provides us the chance to at least speculate the true nature of Cox, who usually expresses his lyrics - mostly chilling portraits of human dementia - in the space of short stories. But up to this point, it had never been about him. The understated disco groove of T.H.M. seems to allude to the suicide of one that was close to him personally. “I’m not mad about anything, you forced on me a hopeless dream,” he begins in Sleepwalking, a superbly crafted three minutes of ramshackle pop wrapped around a loungy rhythmic layer that flawlessly displays his feelings of solace. He takes it a step further with disillusioned anthem Back to the Middle, which synergizes a sharp, rubberlike funk hook with a pristine synth chorus, ultimately wallowing on his developing dependence for heartbreak.

It all culminates in the barren, acoustic confessional Punk (La Vie Antícrieure), in which Cox comes to grips with his troubled past, and somehow relates it with how those events have defined his shape shifting persona. He’s not more forgiving with himself, and the erratic transitions in mood in Monomania serve as an invitation for him to explore his own personal definition. The hasty changes between chiming rock balladry and stinging garage ensure that it is not as instantly cohesive as the transcendental noise of their past two efforts. But taken as a whole, Monomania is arguably their most imposing, and by far their most courageous, proving that Deerhunter have a frontman who’s willing to open up his soul to fit the demands of the stage. It is projected within the realm of the avant-garde, which makes even more sense; this is, after all, a band that operates flawlessly as a formal oddity.