Saturday, June 22, 2013

Deerhunter: Monomania (2013)



It probably wouldn't displease Bradford Cox, were he able to muster up the energy to care, to know that there are an awful lot of people who are very conflicted about him -- from a certain perspective, which could be indie-rock generational or just taste or history with his various projects, undoubtedly Monomania is what someone's been waiting for ever since they heard a certain twist or lift in his voice. It bears noting that Cox's voice is divisive enough by itself -- a sort of ashen croon that easily recalls both Paul Westerberg and John Lennon, just as unmistakable as either but used far less resourcefully -- without the lurching back and forth of the music he helps write and perform for Deerhunter, or crafts on his own under the name Atlas Sound.

A contrast can quickly be drawn to Damon Albarn, whose work with Blur is recognizably distinct from the material he creates with Gorillaz or the Good, the Bad and the Queen, but his personality, hidden or explicit, is incredibly consistent. The difference is that Albarn has a media empire at his disposal and isn't controlled by emotional whims; Cox is a troubled, often seemingly irrational personality and his reflection of self in his music one week, intimate and decisive as it may seem, can easily bear little resemblance to the persona he seems to be driving at by the time he has breakfast the next morning. The current Deerhunter album, for better or worse, finds him in self-absorbed abrasive raving mode -- and worse yet, with a band giving him all the space he needs to indulge.

Some of us were finally sold on Deerhunter after many years of resisting their slightly prog angle on traditional alt-rock because of Halcyon Digest, a record so confident, beautiful and arresting that it seemed it could not possibly be a fluke. If Deerhunter's earlier music was tentative and uninvolving, Atlas Sound's first several years after inception were downright drab and monotonous, but that pseudonym's 2011 record Parallax was one of the most stunning recordings of that year and seemed to verify that Cox was only hitting his creative stride, perhaps enabled by the more-than-niche popularity of his less polished work. Though recording style is one of the most serious obstacles to enjoying Monomania, the difference in Cox's last two albums had little to do with such surface-level matters and everything to do with his newfound ability to temper his expressions of loss, grief and very occasional elation. There was never any doubt that Parallax was an exorcising of demons, but it was also the work of an obvious showman: it gave pleasure, it gave catharsis, and it did both simultaneously and then did it again.

Aesthetically, Monomania heads back to the garage -- but without the idealism and spirit that prompts young bands to retreat there to begin with. Landing far afield from Halcyon, the band's performances here are obligatory, speed-fevered and markedly joyless. But the band is scarcely the story here. With only one tune written and sung by guitarist Lockett Pundt (who now puts out his meandering own solo records under the name Lotus Plaza), not coincidentally one of the two here that almost works, this is as much a Cox showcase as an Atlas Sound album, at least in terms of its exposure of his present mood and mindset. Despite its odd, sudden fixation with dive-bar southern-fried classic rock, which it has neither the audacity nor the recording quality to convincingly imitate, Monomania sounds like the operational, defiant non-catharsis of a depressed person going through the motions: samey, uninteresting, workmanlike.

If you loved Deerhunter before Halcyon Digest, it's hard to say how you might feel about this, as it represents a broad change in tactic that starts to seem broader yet with each repeated listen. Unmistakably though, everything you loved about Halcyon is gone here; the songs are, if anything, equally melodic -- but Ariel Pink has taught us how little that finally means when meshed with muddy, hollow apathy. The songs are what Thom Yorke used to call "fridge buzz," only they're not on the radio, which means they might offer something in a different context ("Neon Junkyard" could be a Pavement b-side, if Pavement had ever so completely lacked grace and intelligence); together, they're deathly dull. Even Pundt's song, the jangle-pop "The Missing" (which unsurprisingly sounds like Lotus Plaza) is essentially a laundry-list of indie rock tropes that don't receive the muscle or sincerity that a lifer band like the Bats or Superchunk can give them when they trot out such beaten-horse things.

If the previous Deerhunter record was a celebration of the past as filtered through individual lives and through music, Monmania's chief evocation is of playing a bad record serviceable enough that you can't be bothered to stop cooking dinner and turn it off; given full attention, the skip button is so tempting that one nearly has to slap one's hand to keep it away (and I don't think I've made it all the way through "Dream Captain" yet, in half a dozen attempts, unless I was driving or cooking). "There's nothing much left of me," indeed. Maybe that's why Deerhunter seem to have designed Monomania as a road album; it sure as hell isn't a headphones album, another excuse uncertain rock bands often make. "Pensacola" fits slightly with this idea -- it's a Replacements-derived night-drive song of sorts, if your night drive gets stymied at the first stoplight immediately after you start to pump yourself up. That's the real theme here, if anything: short-lived enthusiasm hitting a wall -- witness the way the barely-there title track positions itself as a showpiece then rapidly falls apart, and where's that skip button again? Or better yet, the strongest song on the album, "Blue Agent," plays up the John Lennon and Beatles comparisons with its infectious melody and Chuck E. Cheese riff, but its initially exciting throwback feeling gets increasingly shapeless and bottoms out.

For his part, Cox has a certain studied dedication to all this, in the sense that he sounds like he really wants to get the vocals done so he can leave and go play Call of Duty or something -- the modern equivalent of Kurt Cobain rushing through the In Utero sessions so he could have more time to shoot up. Cox's vocals get amplified and distorted and panned to one side and pumped all the way up in the mix until they're in your face or all the way down until you can barely make them out, but none of the trickery can mask the inadequacy and disinterest here, or the dichotomy between the music's targets and his performance. He's neither passionate nor sexual enough to be a glam rocker... and that isn't meant as a knock, it simply lends itself to the overriding feeling that his time would be better spent outside of the barroom-emptiness atmosphere. (You can almost hear the darts being thrown, the people feeling miserable.) His wailing in the dark here simply can't match the confessional grace of Parallax -- or certainly, of songs like "Helicopter" on Halcyon Digest that were almost painfully thorny and moving, something emphasized by the way a self-conscious drama like "Nitebike" thuds to the ground.

Cox and Deerhunter are to be commended for leaving safety, which has been a recurring theme in their work; it's useless and even insulting to suggest that they run for cover, time after time, and so far no two records they've released are remotely alike, which is nearly always a good sign. But there's something surprisingly disappointing about how what seemed like the slow search for a decisive voice is now being knocked out in favor of tortured distortion, songs and recordings up their own asses with fake machismo and faker grit -- classic rock that doesn't care. It's already inherently unpleasurable and incredibly annoying by track two, screaming down a rabbit hole that feels gross and tiresome.

With a sort of tip of the hat to fellow modernist liberal rockers Titus Andronicus, a New Jersey band whose music more convincingly evokes southern rock (but then, weren't two of the hallmark bands of that movement from California and Canada anyway?), we close out on a piece of... ideology? "Punk" is more distinctive than the other songs but still muddy. It hasn't really earned its own triumph anyway, if it were to go for it. But "for a drunk, I was young" sums up Cox in a certain slapdash, tossed off way. He's always been a stream-of-consciousness lyricist, like his great predecessor Michael Stipe, but that only underlines the way that both his mental state and his desire to musically bury it correlate so strongly with how good or bad his music turns out to be. As the band slides dutifully in behind their leader, they never assert themselves or achieve any serious magic. Though clearly strong and equipped to do more than they can with this material, they bring us only power pop with no power. There's nothing wrong with being unambitious, but this much apathy about the final sound and effect of a record is toxic. It's never been clearer that Cox's impulses and whims are Deerhunter, which is both admirable and unnerving -- and does not speak very well to the continued exuberance or significance of their recordings.

Still, a mysterious and brilliant album like Halcyon Digest deserves a lot of prolonged goodwill, and there's every reason to believe that a certain distaste for the type of music being constructed here has to be blamed for my feelings about it, as with Kurt Vile's albums. In other words, my biases play a part here and have perhaps no relevance to anyone else's emotional attachment or detachment from Monomania. All the same, to me this sounds like a sleazeball bartender singing in a locker room for 45 minutes. It makes me feel uncomfortable and unhappy. But maybe I'm the one with demons here.

Halcyon Digest (2010)

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