When Deerhunter first burst onto the music scene in 2007 with their über-hyped Cryptogram, I was a bit skeptical. Every review/interview focused on the back story of Bradford Cox, a young man suffering from Marfan syndrome writing songs about isolation and loss over the echoing madness within the cacophonous guitar cavern that is Cryptogram. Add to the storyline the death of former bassist, Justin Bosworth, and you have all the trappings of a music journalist’s wet dream. I had seen artists like this come and go in the blogger rat race to discover the next big thing, and I figured Deerhunter and its quirky back story would be forgotten within months.
As a true testament of Bradford Cox and company’s talent, the band returned with more focus and a more refined sound on the following two albums, Microcastle and Weird Era Cont (released together as a double album). Deerhunter were officially more than a cute little anecdote; they were the real deal. In 2010, Halcyon Digest solidified their place atop the indie rock hierarchy, proving that they could take their wandering, spacious spirit and rein it in for their most accessible album to date.
Halcyon Digest seemed to be the summit of Deerhunter’s journey, so with their recent album, Monomania, a letdown was inevitable. Where else could the band take their sound? It had already traversed the trails of psychedelia, shoegaze, and dream pop, and on Halcyon Digest all these explorations melded into one fulfilling tour de force. Although the band can’t really get any higher in their musical climb, Monomania does accomplish the unexpected by taking their signature sound into murkier territory.
Turning away from their tried and true reliance on reverb, Deerhunter primarily opts for the overdrive knob and the result is a dingy, defiant album of southern rock suited for the seediest of biker bars. Everything is caked in a crunchy sludge of distortion, the guitars fighting for space, the bass buzzing like an angry bee, and Bradford’s voice growling just below the surface, struggling for air. But unlike past Deerhunter albums that feature Cox sounding lethargic and dejected, Monomania often takes on an uncharted swagger with his voice cracking classic rock era lines like “I’m a boy, man; you’re a man, man” and the Cheap Trick type chorus of “I’m a poor boy from a poor family!” When not strutting around the riffs, Cox howls into the microphone, executing his best Steve Ignorant of Crass impression. On the title track he growls his way through the quicksand of distortion “Monomania!” a dozen times before subsiding. He takes the otherwise Strokes-like track “THM” and tears apart any semblance of pop melody, coughing directly into the mike for almost a minute.
“THM” (the perfect song for a Nyquil commercial):
Deerhunter have described Monomania as their “nocturnal garage rock” album, a fitting description, but don’t be fooled. No matter how much riffage and chest thumping chicanery the band executes, the lyrics tell a much deeper story. If this is their attempt at making a Stooges album, then they must have thought “Search and Destroy” was more about the “forgotten boy” and less about the whole “searching to destroy” madness. If Cox is destroying anything here, it’s himself.
On opening track “Neon Junkyard” he looks through his trash heap of painful memories and decides by that one must learn from the agony instead of collecting it. It may start with this uplifting message of learning, but the remainder of the album quickly becomes a stroll through said junkyard of past heartbreak and confusion. On “The Missing” he searches through the turmoil, insisting that the listener “Open up my thoughts / Tell me if you see some meaning. /Take me all apart / So that I can see the bleeding. / Oh if you don’t mind, / could you show to me the missing?” It’s the musical equivalent of The Fantastic Voyage if the human body expedition was led by Freud.
The second half of the album gains a focus on heartbreak, more specifically, stories of homosexual experimentation gone wrong. Track by track reveals the experience, whether it be on “Punk (La vie Anterieure)” when he mumbles “For a year I was queer” or on the title track when he sings “My only boy couldn’t leave his lady.” Amidst all these intimate tracks is the revelatory “Sleepwalking” where the narrator realizes that for years he has been ignoring the truth of his loneliness. And when he finally does take a look at his life of pursuing a “hopeless dream” that “life will never bring” he looks inwardly to reveal his “heart is hard now.” Connecting back to the album openers message of learning from mistakes, “Sleepwalking” shows him waking from his avoidance dream to realize the pain buried beneath the rubble. Just like the junkyard of torn debris and heartache, Monomania’s reliance on distortion and attitude are all just bravado masking the album’s tender fragility. With a little digging, you might just find the heart of the album, scarred yet still beating.