Deerhunter - Monomania

by Daryl Worthington Rating:8 Release Date:2013-05-06

Something strange is happening in the world of Deerhunter. Over the last few years and albums, the band seemed to settle into an aesthetic and sound which was becoming their hallmark. This was reinforced by the recent albums from the group's side-projects, guitarist Lockett Pundt's Lotus Plaza and singer Bradford Cox's Atlas Sound, which, although clearly distinct from Deerhunter's output, explore similar territories and work in parallel. However, a recent TV performance debuting new single 'Monomania' saw the band decked out in full glam-punk regalia, and deliver a raw, raucous, ramshackle slab of garage-rock, like a different group to that which released Halcyon Digest just a couple of years ago.

The key to this shift can be found in a seemingly innocuous line in the press release: "Avant-garde, but only in context not form". Previous albums Microcastle and Halcyon Digest open with tracks that ooze out of the speakers with a reverb-drenched warmth. Monomania opens with 'Neon Junkyard', which arrives with a beer-soaked stumble of distortion and tinny vocals, collapsing in a heap of backwards guitars and inebriated drums.

It becomes apparent that the continuity between Microcastle and Halcyon Digest, a sound which fused the soulful pop of the Shangri-La's, the layered guitars of My Bloody Valentine, and lo-fi, basement indie, is the exception within the band's discography. Rather, the jump in sound from the more abrasive, electronic sounding Cryptograms to Microcastle, or the bonus disc on the same album, the more abstract Weird Era Cont., are the rule; a band that strives to be avant-garde to any context they or their listeners have constructed for them.

Of course, this isn't a complete detachment from what has gone before for Deerhunter. For all the conceptual shifts, the songs are still unmistakeably theirs. The only Pundt song on the album, 'The Missing', is built on a stark arrangement of clean guitar and drums, substituting the layers of delay and reverb often found in his pieces with a distorted organ and flourishes of wobbly guitar. However, when it reaches its soaring chorus, it is unmistakeably the same songwriter who delivered the lush 'Spooky Action at a Distance' last year.

The Meat Puppets-esque hoe-down of 'Pensacola' has Cox shouting "Let's Go", before a guitar-break in weird country-rock style. Yet it still captures the sense of teenage isolation and confusion which has always flowed through his songs. Even the title track, with its screamed vocals and car stereo production, has the line "There's a light in my heart/ It won't be there tomorrow", showing there is more to these songs than punk nihilism. Indeed, the fierce wall of guitar noise could be compared to the guitar-layering found on their other albums. It just sounds much more damaged.

It is easy to be cynical when a band makes such a sea-change in sound and image, dismissing it as a dilettante's attempt to woo the blogosphere with 'a craaazy new direction.' Deerhunter avoid this trap thanks to the skill and ferocious intent with which they've tackled their new material, from the deranged noise-off at the end of 'Leather Jacket II' to Cox summoning his inner Iggy Pop with his scream of "I'm a boy man, you're a man, man". With Monomania, they sound like music fans first and foremost, with a genuine passion for the new sounds they're exploring, and a genuine desire to avoid becoming stale or repetitive.

This isn't Deerhunter's best album, there are a few tracks in the middle which come across as filler rather than fully formed ideas, and there is a good chance people who became fans due to their last couple of albums may be put off by this new approach. However, it's these imperfections which remind the listener that Deerhunter are a great band who aren't afraid to take a gamble to avoid repeating themselves.

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