Deerhunter - Monomania
Posted on Tuesday, 7 May 2013 | No Comments
Has Bradford Cox become normal? This might seem a slightly insane question to ask, especially in the light of Deerhunter's remarkable performance of Monomania on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon recently which featured a dragged-up Bradford with bandaged fingers walking off-set as the track reaches its cacophonous conclusion, but it's an important one to ask. Since he and his band Deerhunter broke into the indie conciousness with their remarkable second album Cryptograms, Bradford has been one of the most colourful and unique frontmen in rock: between 2007 and 2011, he managed four full-lengths and two EPs with Deerhunter, plus three solo albums and countless free online releases as Atlas Sound (including the four volume Bedroom Databank collection in 2010). There's been the rambling interviews, the surreal and sometimes disturbing blog posts, the curation of a somewhat diva-ish reputation: but this was part of what made him so compelling and brilliant in its way, other iterations of the compulsive and workaholic tendencies that fuelled his prolific and superb output in his period.
With each album though, his work has tip-toed closer and closer towards the mainstream: the blurred drones of Cryptograms were more contained by Microcastle, and then sidelined entirely for Halcyon Digest. His solo work also has calmed, from the bedroom electronica of Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See but Cannot Feel to the more lush surroundings of Parallax. Even the constant stream seemed to slow down to something approaching industry standards - surprisingly, the only new Deerhunter-related music to energe last year was guitarist Lockett Pundt's second Lotus Plaza record.
At first glance, Monomania is a confirmation of this thesis: the deeply personal and idiosyncratic nature of Bradford's songwriting has now been subsumed into a more overtly American, at times Americana, sound. Shorter, garage rock inspired pieces dominate a record that signposts Bradford's statement in an interview with Buzzfeed "to be a great American rock 'n' roll band." There's certainly plenty here that shows a very different mentality to early Deerhunter, the scratchy rockabilly of Pepsicola and Dream Captain's winking chorus "I'm a poor boy / From a poory family" (not an American reference, true, but a very classic, 'real' rock one undeniably) pushing very far away from any kind of shoegaze lineage.
Perhaps inevitably though, the classic rock and American stylings of Monomania are as much of a ruse as anything else in Bradford's career. Rather than a simple play-through of the Nuggets songbook, Monomania emerges as a subtly subversive work that, for all its veils and plays at simplicity, is just as knotty and personal as anything else with Bradford's hand in it. Neon Junkyard takes the blown-out Neil Young qualities of the more up-beat material on Halycon Digest but plays it rougher, Bradford "finding ancient language in the blood" in a paen to the eternal teenage fantasy of the r'n'r dream, before Leather Jacket II pulls apart the whole artifice with a chaotic mid-section crash, distorted vocals and a Scary Monsters-esque lead riff that draws attention to its whole artifice, and the whole artifice of supposedly real and genuine rock music.
Admittedly, so far in this review I've focused on Bradford alone within the Deerhunter camp. That's not to deny the contributions of drummer Moses Archuleta and guitarist and occasional songwriter Lockett, whose Monomania contribution The Missing opens up the record from the claustrophobic distortion of its opening duo (even if it does sound like something that would have fitted in better on the last Lotus Plaza than on a Deerhunter album). But as much as a needles-in-the-red, full band sound is pushed this time out, this might be the most Bradford dominated Deerhunter album to date. Their previous work has never been so totally dominated by his own fixations, an impression aided by the line-up shuffle that took place just before the recording of the album, with long-time bassist Josh Fauver departing, and new bassist Josh McKay and extra guitarist Frankie Broyles joining.
While it may come through the prism of an exploration of American rock'n' roll history, Monomania is essentially focused on Bradford's own monomania with the music that inspired him and the music he makes - music that, it's suggested, has also written Bradford's character. The title track is a contortion of accelerating riffs, speeding up into a mantha of "mono mono, monomania" as the band follow Bradford down his insular path with equal parts glee and horror. Nitebike strips it down to a bare acoustic sketch, a glimpse behind the curtains before Punk (La Vie Anterieure) brings things to a halt with its youthful reminiscence, looking back at a youth spent in the underground before an adulthood yet to be known. It's an emotional and honest conclusion that still fits in with the loose conceptual framework of the record.
If Monomania's more limited soundscape might result in an album slightly less impressive than Microcastle or Halcyon Digest, it's still another remarkable collection of songs: the run in the middle from Dream Captain through to T.H.M. has some of the most dreamy and out-and-out beautiful melodies yet to date. For all the garage rock underpinnings and abbreviated song lengths, Monomania's real triumph is that it provides a neat side-step to Deerhunter's progression to date, keeping their growing maturity but matching it with a sense of play and meta-commentary that keeps it fresh and leaves the path open for whatever follows next. Even if Bradford is being totally honest about wanting to write a straight-up American rock record, we can all be too glad he's too idiosyncratic to ever live up to that billing. He's following his own peculiar, obsessive muse still, and in an indie scene sorely lacking in true mavericks and oddballs, we can all be glad for that.