Review Summary: Deerhunter deftly avoids a one track state of mind.
Atlanta indie rockers Deerhunter have reached the apex of an arc they have traveled since the beginning of their career. Each subsequent release has trended toward cleaning up their sound and crafting shorter, more tightly constructed tunes, which culminated with their breakout 2010 effort, Halcyon Digest. So after riding that rail as far as it can go, what's next?
There is the temptation to pull an Animal Collective, who veered sharply back toward their old school sound on the followup to their watershed album Merriweather Post Pavilion. But Deerhunter's response has been far more intricate. Their new album, Monomania, maintains the sharp focus demonstrated on Halcyon Digest while confidently displaying a messier, less frilly, and more free spirited sound. The result is a record that's much more challenging than its predecessor, and ultimately more rewarding.
Frontman Bradford Cox has drawn from some new influences to give rise to an abrasive, rough around the edges sound. As he attested in a Pitchfork feature article, Monomania draws inspiration from the likes of Hank Williams, John Lee Hooker, and Bo Diddley. If you're a fan of those artists but don't have much background with Deerhunter you likely won't see much resemblance. However, looking at it through Deerhunter lenses reveals a much more swashbuckling and swaggering sound than we've seen from this band thus yet. More than ever Cox is becoming a lightning rod as frontman, and is proving to be a fascinating one at that. On several songs here he fashions himself as a transient figure -- a wandering vagabond who is caught in the moment of not knowing what he wants to do, but knows he hasn't found it yet.
This manifests itself best in Monomania's traveling songs, the most enamoring of which is "Pensacola." The song, about hopping a bus to Pensacola, boasts a southern rock vibe with its crunching, rollicking guitar riff. Cox certainly comes across as down on his luck: among his problems is the fact that his woman just ran off with another nan, and with nothing particularly holding him down he's just looking to move on. The theme continues on the next track, "Dream Captain." Once again he seems pretty bummed out, mentioning that he has no one to take care of him. So he urges the ship captain to take him away. He realizes the stark nature of his situation while still hoping for the future, wondering if he can find his place on board the deck of the company ship.
Most convincingly, the band even prove they are capable of conjuring this sense of desolation without always riding the woe is me vibe. Album opener "Neon Junkyard" sounds like a postcard sent from the edge of nowhere; with its dusty desolate backdrop, it's not hard to imagine Cox wading through a wasteland of bright lights and faded streetsigns.
At times, the band pushes their sonic intensity even farther up the Richter scale. "Leather Jacket II" is bolstered by an instantly recognizable wailing guitar riff. Cox's indiscernible vocal fades in and out of the muddled mix like a broken transistor radio, while guitarist Lockett Pundt lights it up with a headbanging riff that demonstrates a bonafide sense of groove. But even that can't hold a candle to the album's title track, easily the craziest song in the set. It builds up briskly, exploding in a churning maelstrom as Cox repeatedly shouts the song's title phrase over an inferno of fuzz, clashing guitars, and tortured shrieking solos. It ends with the distant ragged buzzing of a weedeater motor.
Then, of course, there are the more subdued, shoegazey pieces that Deerhunter are well known for. Tracks like "The Missing" and "T.H.M." are mellow dream coated pieces that easily could have fit on Halcyon Digest or perhaps Microcastle. "Sleepwalking," in particular, displays a hypnotizing Interpol inspired closing coda, something that could also be said about "Desire Lines" from Halcyon Digest. These songs are well done and capture the spirit of what Deerhunter have been doing for a long time, but they are typically the most straightforward of the selections here and therefore the least interesting.
Already one of the more unique bands inhabiting the blogoverse, Deerhunter have proven they had only begun to push the limits of their intoxicating sound. Monomania contains their most nuanced, fertile, and mature writing to date. Most encouraging, they pull off the tricky task of staying true to their roots without floating in the nebulous broth that dragged down their early material. As far as Cox goes, he's made a stunning transition following his string of solo/Atlas Sound records; his voice was once a small brick in their wall of hazy sound, and now he has emerged as a dynamic and relatable frontman. The themes of travel, transience, and being down on your luck are sure to appeal to any young person living through a roughspun and ramshackle existence. No matter whether you're scraping by today or bear memories of doing it long ago, Cox and crew have concocted a brew that is soul affirming, and incredibly, incredibly affecting.