The two and a half year gap from Deerhunter’s last full length Halcyon Digest to their newest release Monomania, is the longest we’ve had to wait for new material from the prolific Atlanta band. This time we didn’t get an EP like Fluorescent Grey or Rainwater Cassette Exchange that bridged the gap between full lengths and helped to give an indication of what they might do next, so we were coming into this release relatively blind. Or perhaps we weren’t, and we just didn’t know it. The band have hardly been scarce in their time away; Lockett Pundt released a great second album as Lotus Plaza, Spooky Action At A Distance; Bradford Cox put out his third Atlas Sound album, Parallax; and he has been seen and heard aplenty dressing up as Joey Ramone, dissing Morrissey and performing 50 minute improvised freakout covers of The Knack’s “My Sharona.” Disparate as these elements are, they all give an indication of the mindset the band had heading into Monomania, and can equally be seen in the scattered, noisy and mixed results.
Cox has always had a penchant for gussying up in live shows, but this side of his persona has never before pervaded Deerhunter’s music as much as it does on Monomania. Here we find him casting himself in several different roles, with the rest of the band ably following him into many different territories. The soothing voice he’s used primarily on Deerhunter’s recent output is mostly done away with; when his voice isn’t distorted, double tracked or put through a filter, he often opts for more of a growling, aggressive delivery, clearly having fun with his duties as band leader.
Although many of the songs nods to various types of rock from the past, the final products are always unmistakably Deerhunter. “Leather Jacket II,” from name on down through the music, seems to be their homage to garage rock, but done with Deerhunter’s more confrontational approach; the guitars snarl, wail and tumble, and they sound like they’re grinding together, swallowing the vocals and resulting in a scorching husk of a song whose volume is only matched again at the towering conclusion of the title track. The somewhat hokey “Pensacola” has Cox taking on classic country troubadour persona, telling a traditional story of road tripping around; and while they enhance this feel with the use of a pedal steel provided by new member Frank Broyles, the guitars shred and crackle in a much more modern style. The middle couplet of “Blue Agent” and “T.H.M.” quiet down the album with a creeping cinematic and noir-ish feel. Though both further prove Deerhunter’s skill at writing more subtle and detailed songs, neither quite has the craft or atmosphere to be as memorable as something like “Earthquake” or “Basement Scene” from their last album, or the central four-track suite of Microcastle.
The bouncy and joyously gaudy “Dream Captain,” which theatrically places Cox as a hungry pauper, may have the album’s most telling reference. The nod to Freddie Mercury when he spits “I’m a poor boy from a poor family” in the song’s chorus seems particularly apt in this relatively flamboyant song. Moreover, the album as a whole seems to share in the Queen singer’s love of costume changes, as Monomania can seem in some ways like a game of musical dress up.
Then there are a few of tracks that are steeped in Deerhunter tropes. “The Missing” is Locket Pundt’s sole contribution this time out and typically it’s a highlight as it continues with the slick and sweet sounds of Lotus Plaza, coming across as a diamond in the rough as it positively glimmers, falling between the scuzzy “Leather Jacket II” and rambunctious “Pensacola.” “Sleepwalking” combines shoegazey guitars with spangling plucked guitar floating around it, flowing like a dream with the band effortlessly lurching up into a higher gear for the final stretch, akin to the thrilling conclusions of Microcastle favorites “Never Stops” or “Saved By Old Times.” “Back To The Middle” is a straightforward jam that flicks easily between jaunty guitars and delicate electric piano from chorus to verse, evoking the feel and the fun of the shorter and poppier tracks from Halcyon Digest. These latter two songs provide the first two thirds of the album’s strongest three-song run, which concludes with “Monomania,” wherein Cox produces classically lonely and obsessive lyric about a light in his heart and something rotting in his head, which is backed up by muscular and forceful guitars that build unrelentingly until the noise seems to collapse into itself. The album has a nice flow up until this point, and following the epic noise freak out of “Monomania” it feels like the album has reached its natural conclusion. This leaves the last two quieter and Atlas Sound-esque songs, “Nitebike” and “Punk (La Vie Antérieure),” feeling a bit tacked on. Though, both songs are undeniably enjoyable, so we may more charitably call them the epilogue of the album.
There’s always been something of a disconnect between the serious and haunted side presented by Bradford Cox on record and the jovial and lively one that appears onstage. Monomania feels like the first time that he’s translated his more outgoing side into his music. Cox is a disciple of punk and rock’n’roll, and with the help of the versatile and talented band he’s assembled (and constantly re-assembled) he’s made an album that both pleases and expresses this quality. It may not reach the same creative highs or artistic wholeness of their previous releases, but in its own right, it can be just as enjoyable.