Deerhunter. So long one of my pet hates. Now, essentially all I ever listen to. I hate to admit when pretentious indie sites like Pitchfork and co. break my resistance, but, goddamn, if Deerhunter aren’t one of the finest bands of the 2000s then I don’t know what’s what anymore.
And now, as the circle loops back round, it’s fallen to me to try and convince the world, or the unfathomably minute percentage of it who read this, that they’re a band worth listening to.
This is in theory the songs that bookmark the development of the band and tell the story of how they came to be critics darlings and indie royalty. In reality it’s mostly just the songs I like best with some context wedged in. It’s like a house constructed entirely out of all your favourite objects. Unless you love bricks and cement it’s probably crap and barely constitutes an actual house, but you think it’ll do anyway because it has things you like in it.
That’s what this list is. A crap house, but a brilliant one in the completely subjective opinion of some people.
Deerhunter used to be a run of the mil, sort of crap garage punk band from Atlanta, Georgia. Then in 2007, Cryptograms, and its incredibly incredible album artwork, happened. That awkward, stilted opening as frontman Bradford Cox moans:
“My greatest fear, I fantasised
The days were long, and weeks flew by
Before I knew I was awake,
My days were through, it was too late”
whilst a hypnotic swirl of spacey guitar and krautrock drums surrounds his distorted vocals, pretty much encapsulates Deerhunter. Awkward, weird, a tad depressing, and yet strangely hypnotic.
As the opener to their first proper release, Cryptograms launches you head first into the deeply personal and often deeply strange world of Cox and co. Musically, it’s all but impossible to describe. Dream-rock? Psychedelic ambient indie? Who knows. All you know is that, once it clicks, it worms its way deep into your head and just spirals out from there.
Cryptograms forms the introduction to the weird half of the album of the same name. Ambient, trippy and strung out, it’s inarguably weaker than the poppier, more accessible second half kicked off by Spring Hall Convert. One reviewer called that track the most uplifting rock song he’d heard in years. What he failed to mention is that the follow up, Strange Lights, is even better.
All shimmering guitar and poppy euphoria, it’s perhaps the lightest, happiest, most melodic song in their catalgoue. Sure, it’s still about how we’re all walking to our inevitable death, but hey, “Walking’s half the fun” and “At least I’m with a friend”. Yes, their happiest stuff is limited to ‘At least’ and ‘half the fun’.
Still, it’s this positivity in the face of how crap everything is and the wonderfully carefree glow of Strange Lights that makes it perhaps my personal favourite.
It’s three and a half minutes of perhaps their most individually well crafted, accessible work and reason enough to see why many would later tout them as indie’s next big breakout act.
Calvary Scars 2(Aux Out)//Weird Era Cont.
“Crucified on a cross
In front of all my closest friends”
and think “Yes, that’s the one we turn into a two part, twelve minute long epic of exploding guitars and chanted refrains”. On 2008’s double album Weird Era Cont./Microcastle, they did just that.
The second part of Calvary Scars showcases how they tightened up the extended, spacey jams of Cryptograms first half and turned them into a propulsive, densely constructed krautrock, dream-pop odyssey. It’s at once incredibly pretty and, with its waves of noise constantly shifting in speed, loaded with explosive, guitar-fueled power.
The rest of Weird Era Cont. is often almost unlistenably loose and sparse, but here it comes together into the kind of tight, driving jam they now do so well.
Deerhunter’s Space Age ends here.
Cover Me Slowly/Agoraphobia//Microcastle
Bradford Cox has issues. Like, serious issues. Marfan’s syndroms means he has the figure of nightmares and endless screams, and he spent most of his early life in hospital trying to fix it, or any number of other ailments. Look him up and you’ll see how successful that was.
Thankfully he channeled all that awfulness into something non-awful and now these issues, and just sort of him generally, form the heart of Deerhunter’s work and their strung out, aching sound.
On songs like Agoraphobia and its extended intro Cover Me Slowly, those issues are brought front and center with disconcertingly melodic results.
Agoraphobia is pretty much what it says on the tin – he doesn’t want to go outside anymore. In fact, he’d rather go blind and lose his voice. His descriptions of how he wishes to be locked in a 6×6 room make for perhaps their rawest, most unsettling insight into Cox’s psyche (along with Cryptograms and Monomania) and highlights what really drives the band.
Nothing Ever Happened//Microcastle
By the time Microcastle/Weird Era Cont. came out, Cryptograms had thrown Deerhunter under the critical spotlight. Nothing Ever Happened went and catapulted them straight onto center stage and, like a horrifyingly lanky butterfly, they were transformed from interesting oddity to indie darlings, championed by frequent kingmakers Pitchfork as a new Arcade Fire.
A sprawling rock jam tied together by hypnotic drum, throbbing bass and electrified by piercing stabs of guitar and keyboard; it heralded the arrival of a mature, accessible rock band who could fashion those spacey wanderings of old into a truly great ‘song’ rather than just assorted noises.
Driving, crazy-krautrock-esque, and utterly infectious, Nothing Ever Happened is about as straight-up as Deerhunter gets. This is just pure indie guitar driven genius.
Halcyon Digest was important. It decided whether Deerhunter would churn out their brand of dream rock ad nauseaum and become predictably niche, or push off to something new and genuinely unique. Animal Collective had just exploded and now it was up to Deerhunter to take up the mantle of ‘Underheard Indie Royalty’ and prime themselves for blastoff.
On Earthquake they returned shorn of the guitars, the drums and the rough edges that had defined them. They were slower, so dreamy they hardly even sound lucid, and polished to shining. The sound was sparser again, but yet infinitely more clean and lush (even if Cox’s vocals remained as distorted as ever).
It was something totally new, and, as my introduction to Deerhunter, still totally inaccessible and regarded as a bit crap and weird. That’s changed, but all the same this would clearly be no cross-over hit; even if it would give them the foundation for one.
Ah, Revival. If any song should have been a hit, it was this. Two and a half minutes of folksy distortion and blues-inflected dream pop.
It’s almost undoubtedly my most listened to Deerhunter song, but even so my religious listening failed to lead me to pick up on the song’s own evangelical elements. It’s pretty obvious when you consider the title, but I missed the entire point of the song for months. What I eventually discovered was that it’s Bradford discussing being a born-again Christian and what it does for him.
It’s kinda weird to hear a big psychedelic, indie/punk band reveal themselves to be so religious, but it does unearth just how deeply religious themes are embedded within their work. Once you look past all the depression and stuff.
Desire Lines//Halcyon Digest
The second part of the trifecta of goodness that makes Halcyon so hard to look past as their best album yet – even if some of the intervening tracks fail to impress – Desire Lines isn’t massively significant for any reason other than being testament to just how sharp their song-crafting has become, and how polished they’ve made everything.
An immaculately constructed krautrock (I really can’t emphasise enough just how krautrock-esque this band often are) sprawl in the vein of Nothing Ever Happened, it harks back to previous albums while remaining covered in the new sheen lent to their work. Like much of the album it has an ethereal, almost nostalgic, sound, whilst at the same time losing none of its driving, bass-led power.
Just, just so lush.
Layers upon layers upon layers, each more tragically lush and pretty than the last.
Deerhunter are often a sad band. Saying Helicopter is perhaps their saddest song really means quite a lot. It’s incredibly pretty, the production is magnificent, and Cox’s vocals hold up even stripped of all that fuzz. But goddamn if it doesn’t sound like a heart breaking in slow motion or something.
That nostalgic, timeless vibe pervades every inch of the track and by the end you’re left just a little sad inside as Cox moans
“No one cares for me
I keep no company
I have minimal needs
And now they are through with me
Now they are though with me” (repeat until everything is grey and miserable)
Sad, but strangely uplifted by just how…erm..lush it all sounds.
And, finally, on a wave of lushness comes Deerhunter’s latest release – this year’s Monomania. Building on the critical success of Halcyon the band made ready for what would surely be their breakout moment.
First, they decided that three guitarists would be necessary, which was strange since their last album had less guitar. Then they compared themselves to R.E.M. and claimed they could be the biggest band in the world, which was a bit more like it. Then they compared their album to Monster, which is weird since that’s R.E.M’s rough, anti-commercial follow up to their massive success.
Then they released it and, boy…
Out with the polish and back with the fuzz. And then more fuzz. And then out with the dream-pop and in with the garage rock. And then in with guitars. And then some more guitars. And lyrics about being raised on the Delta and, ohmigod this isn’t what was meant to happen.
The realisation that they’ve gone about as far from where they were meant to go as possible kicks in by about the second track – but Dream Captain is the one that sells you that, even if it isn’t what you thought you wanted, Monomania is still a damn good album.
It’s rough, drowned in distortion and harder than just about anything they’ve done before. Cox’s vocals have gone from melancholy croon to bluesy howl and everything else followed suit. All the krautrock and ambient influences are ditched in favour of Captain Beefheart and the Stones.
They call it ambient punk, a pretty accurate title (especially in relation to opener Neon Junkyard), but Dream Captain is the song that best shows the shift to their blues-ier side. Where the band go now is no one’s guess.
All that blues and stuff isn’t really Deerhunter though. They’re all anxiety and depression and anguish over chaotic, blurred, and strangely hypnotic clashes of instruments. All this born on the river stuff isn’t them. It’s good, but not them.
Step forward Monomania to remind you that this is still very much Deerhunter. It’s fitting that the title track of their breakaway album is the one that best blends old and new. Filled with angst and uncertainty, it translates that not into dreamy acid trips or downbeat wallowing, but anger, fury and raw power.
Discussing Cox’s battles with the condition the song takes its name from, it’s ingeniously well constructed. The lyrics are fractured and dissolute until, as the distortion and howled vocals die down, they reform around his insecurities and culminate in, and this is perhaps my favourite thing they’ve done just for how clever it is, two minutes of shouting MONOMONOMANIA MONOMONOMANIA MONOMONOMANIA MONOMONOMANIA MONOMONOMANIA MONOMONOMANIA MONOMONOMANIA MONOMONOMANIA MONOMONOMANIA MONOMONOMANIA MONOMONOMANIA MONOMONOMANIA MONOMONOMANIA MONOMONOMANIA MONOMONOMANIA MONOMONOMANIA MONOMONOMANIA MONOMONOMANIA MONOMONOMANIA MONOMONOMANIA MONOMONOMANIA MONOMONOMANIA MONOMONOMANIA MONOMONOMANIA MONOMONOMANIA MONOMONOMANIA MONOMONOMANIA MONOMONOMANIA MONOMONOMANIA