Deerhunter - Monomania
Record Label: 4AD
Release Date: May 7, 2013
Deerhunter sure as hell seemed like a band on a very clear trajectory. Their ascendance to post-millenial indie rock titans appeared to be complete with 2010’s Halcyon Digest, a nearly universally adored record that perfectly blended the band’s shoegaze-inspired ambient guitar swirl with frontman Bradford Cox’s knack for pop melody. It featured a more understated and textured sound compared with the sometimes-dissonant squall of earlier releases, a sound that mirrored Cox’s emotionally bare lyrics and fragilely detached vocal style. It seemed all-but-destined that the next Deerhunter release would be not only another beautifully-crafted pop album in the vein of Halcyon, but also more likely than not the band’s “crossover” album that further propelled them to mainstream success.
But then Deerhunter debuted the title track from Monomania last month on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon in a wickedly unhinged performance starring Cox as a wig-rocking, dress-wearing, bloodied bandage-sporting madman. Cox’s shtick was not that surprising—he’s long been infamous for his ridiculous live performances, even before he started doing hour-long covers of “My Sharona”—but rather, what came as a true shock to the system was, well, the song itself. A barnburner in every sense of the word, “Monomania” begins as an anthemic garage rock cry to the heavens before dissolving into Cox’s repeated frenetic wailing and a torrent of brash and chaotic guitar noise, the likes of which we haven’t really heard from Deerhunter since Turn It Up F-ggot, their 2005 debut.
The band chose to describe Monomania as a “nocturnal garage” album in a press release, and while that’s a good jumping-off point for discussing the album, there’s a little more to the record’s sound than that. Most importantly, it is crucial to note that while there is plenty of dissonant noise rock across the LP, not just in the title track, the album also displays some of the most straight-forward pop songs Cox has ever written, just not performed in a pop context. In a way, the album does deliver on the promise of Halcyon in that it has some of the catchiest songs in the Deerhunter canon. For example, while the schlitzy faux-southern rock numbers “Pensacola” and “Dream Captain” are head-scratchers in an aesthetic sense, both songs showcase infectious vocal hooks and guitar lines.
But those two songs, while catchy certainly, are also the best example of why Monomania is a frustratingly inconsistent album. While it does features some dizzying highs, songs like “Pensacola” that seem to essentially be joke songs to a large extent feel very odd, especially coming from a band that is well-known for taking their art very, very seriously.
Furthermore, Cox’s lyrics on those two songs, and occasionally at other times throughout the record, are laughable: “I’m a poor boy from a poor family / Ain’t got nobody left to take care of me,” he sings on “Dream Captain.” It hardly feels like the same guy who penned the mysteriously transcendent ode to Jay Reatard “He Would Have Laughed” that closed Halcyon. But elsewhere, Cox displays significant lyrical chops: on closer “Punk (La Vie Antérieure),” easily one of the album’s highlights, he sings, “For a month, I was punk / I remembered all that junk…For a year, I was queer / I had conquered all my fears”—incredibly simple lines that pack a fantastically large emotional punch.
Another highlight of the record is “The Missing,” an elegantly simply atmospheric pop number, and the only song on the album featuring lead vocals from Lockett Pundt. Given Pundt’s excellent contributions to Deerhunter records in the past, as well as his work of late with solo project Lotus Plaza this is fairly disappointing. The album could have used a tiny bit less of Cox’s glammy weirdness, anyway.
The album’s sequencing also feels a bit strange. It might be intentional, but the songs seem to be grouped in an odd way. The two noisiest songs beside the title track show up at the top of the record, followed by “The Missing” and the two aforementioned forays into southern-fried schlitz. Next comes the album’s dreamier mid-section, which calls to mind previous Deerhunter records more than anything else here, then the title track, and finally the stripped-down one-two closing punch of “Nitebike” and “Punk.” It makes for a somewhat inconsistent and at times jarring listen, but I suppose Deerhunter are nothing if not full of surprises, right? This whole album is kind of an exercise in proving that point.
Monomania is a very good album, but it falls just short of being a great one. The band nails the noisier tracks and the quieter ones alike, but the album is a little too inconsistent to ever truly get into a jaw-dropping groove. Most crucially, however, it seems to be largely missing the depth of lyrical content and also of sonic texture that we have come to expect from Deerhunter.
It is certainly a pretty one-dimensional album, but at the same time it’s hard to complain about that when the dimension it is stuck in is by and large a pretty great and fun one. While it’s certainly not what anyone thought a new Deerhunter album would sound like three years removed from the world of Halcyon Digest, the band certainly succeeds in their goal of crafting “nocturnal garage,” and the album’s high points—namely “Monomania,” “Punk,” “The Missing” and “T.H.M.”—are some of the best songs the group has ever recorded.
Maybe we’ll get that pop masterpiece next time around.
This is probably my favorite of their albums. As much praise as Halcyon Digest received, it had some great moments, but a lot that I just couldn't get into. Even my two favorite tracks, "Desire Lines" (one of my all-time favorite songs) and "Don't Cry" felt like they didn't belong on the same album together. For me, this was more consistent in terms of quality and feels like a cohesive album.
Oh, and they owe Wilco some royalties for "Dream Captain".
I agree with most of what you said in your review. 'Pensacola', for me, is a song that isn't really a "joke" track and is more of an homage to the golden-age of country with a deerhunter twist. The lyrics on that track are fantastic and surprisingly to the point, describing trying to better your own life only to see the person you've bettered it for move on. At that point what's left? A long bus trip, man. I can see why some may hear it as an out-of-left track, especially following songs like ' The Missing' (which also is a complete 180 after the album's first two songs).