Bradford Cox says he wants Deerhunter to become one of the great American rock bands in the vein of fellow Athenians R.E.M. I guess it’s more than mere coincidence then that his band has chosen follow his idols career path with their latest release, Monomania. In much the same way that Monster was the brash, rough, distorted retort to Automatic for the People’s polish, Monomania is the dirty, bluesy flipside to the dreamy, lavish Halcyon Digest. And, much like Monster, whilst it’s a great album and one with barely a bad note in sight, it ultimately never hits the highs of its predecessor.
Whereas Halcyon Digest had its holy trinity of Revival, Desire Lines and Helicopter to compensate for any failings, Monomania lacks any tracks of the same quality. It’s fortunate then that it has fewer weaker songs too then. The shift to hard rock has shunted the sporadic slowdowns of some of Halcyon’s more ‘reserved’ numbers and replaced them with a frenetic mess that carries shades of a fuzzed up Captain Beefheart. Cox has namechecked the likes of The Ramones and Bo Diddley when discussing an album he describes as ‘avant-garde rock and roll’. With Monomania’s simple structures and bluesy sound I’m presuming he means rock n roll in the traditional 50s sense. The lo-fi production and messy layering of waves of guitar suggests avant-garde in the Jesus and Mary Chain sense. What’s perhaps weirdest is the addition of a certain swagger to songs like album opener Leather Jacket II and The Missing. Though, with a title like Leather Jacket II you kind of expect some degree of swagger to be involved.
That swagger is even stranger when you consider that Deerhunter lyrics typically only have one mode: crazy personal and a bit depressing. I mean, the album is called Monomania after Cox’s obsessive temperament and general mental disarray. I swear he must be the most consistently unhappy person in the world if his lyrics are anything to go by. Still, you can’t deny they dovetail well with his trademark spacey, yet pained and hyper-distorted vocals to create that essentially Deerhunter atmosphere of loneliness, nostalgia, regret and other sad things. Combining with the new, rougher sound, Cox has lent a new bite and edge to his vocals too – although on Nitebike he reverts to form with some anguished acoustic work that sounds like it could be straight off Halcyon.
Everything else, including the two (!) extra guitarists they brought on board to create that distinctive swirl of sound, is utterly drowned in reverb (as always) and is very much an alternative kind of rock. It at times hearks back to the sound of the Microcastle/Weird Era Cont. double release; which makes this a weird progression for a band that seemed poised to breakthrough into the mainstream.
Already established indie heavyweights, and arguably the most consistently acclaimed act of their scene for the past half a decade, the lighter sound of Halcyon Digest seemed to suggest a move towards the accessible. I’m not saying we were expecting them to crossover, it would be foolish to try and predict the movements of someone like Bradford, but, well, people sorta were. It seemed natural. The release of the title track and its weirdly dirty sound took people by surprise, but, all the same, I can’t see anyone complaining about it. Monomania may not be the step forward people were expecting, and you could even argue it isn’t a step forward at all, but it’s nothing if not consistent, solid and, above all, good.
It may not have the soaring highs of songs like Octet, Nothing Ever Happened or Halcyon’s trio, but it’s all good stuff. Hell, who knows, maybe a song like Back to the Middle, with its crazy catchy hook and decidedly indie, laid-back feel, could even be a breakthrough song anyway. Deciding what grade to give this was a tough proposition: it doesn’t have the kind of stand-out moment that I think an A should have, but at the same time it really doesn’t have a bad track on it. I’ve listened to it a solid 5 times since I saw it was streaming, which is the kind of pull that should merit an A, but I’m not sure how long this’ll last or how long it’ll be before I come back to it. It doesn’t have anything to really grab me back the way something like Revival does. I can’t remember the last time I listened to most of Halcyon, but I seem to listen to Revival on an almost daily basis.
That won’t happen with this, no matter how hard Monomania gets stuck in my head. I almost feel like giving them an A for how clever it is of them to make that song so hard to get out of your head. Very meta, guys. You know what, shucks, have your A, Bradford. You’re sad enough as it is. And hey, you surprised me, which just makes my expectation for the next, now impossible to predict, album even greater.