Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Deerhunter: Microcastle (2008)



Bradford Cox is a sadsack, but sometimes we need that. For years I've thought of Halcyon Digest, an album by Deerhunter that I love with all my heart, as something of a fluke. It's almost as confusing to keep up with Cox's various projects and personas as it is with John Darnielle and Stephin Merritt, even if Cox is a bit more of a natural collaborator, so I placed the Atlas Sound record Logos and this infamously leaked New York pseudo-shoegaze album on a sort of continuum. They've always blended together to me, and generally despite putting it on a number of times over the past several years with varying degrees of concentration, it's only in the last few weeks that Microcastle has started to move me. Is it a question of attention span? Mood? The context of Deerhunter eventually putting out an album I actively disliked (Monomania)? Whatever the case, I hear wisps of both the intricate moodiness of Halcyon and the galvanizing beauty of Atlas Sound's Parallax in this, like steps along an evolutionary path. Cox's music always rewards repeated attention, but it's hard to heartily recommend a record so elusive that it literally took me half a decade to appreciate it. All the same, here we are.

Microcastle may or may not be a drug album -- it certainly rewards the same sort of zone-out trance as zoomhead classics like Oar, The Velvet Underground and Nico, Sister Lovers and any number of early Brian Eno touchstones. Shambolic, beautiful, slapdash, it aspires to the buzzing and metallic sheen of old Ride, Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine records -- but Cox is too outsized a personality to make that a convincing analogy. Even in his subtlest, softest gestures he is a figure of full-on melodrama, gesturing theatrically. So Microcastle starts like you'd expect it to end: a hungover encore, a party gone too long.

And then the cooing starts but not from Cox, some combination of come for me comfort me cover me, sweet and broken. Lockett Pundt might evoke Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel on "Agoraphobia" but the band has other ideas. It's a tired comparison any band attracted to the sound of jangle has struggled with, much as the prior generation incessantly dodged Byrds analogies, but R.E.M. is inescapable here. It's a good aspiration for Deerhunter to try and craft an album that subsumes the listener completely, that reveals secrets gradually the way their famed fellow Georgians once did. Like Murmur or New Adventures in Hi-Fi, Microcastle turns out not only to craftily hide its hooks, melodic peaks and cathartic moments, it teases just enough to encourage continued exposure.

It's hard to define why it's therefore less rewarding than the band's next record, except maybe just that the songs aren't as strong or thematically potent. Each individual song, major and minor, is a microcosm of the whole album: pretty and vague, with a hard, dreamlike edge. What it seldom is, with scattered exceptions like the subtly graceful stop-start rhythmic "Little Kids," is playful. At moments you could drown yourself in the desolation of it all, in a manner not dissimilar to the Antlers' oppressive Hospice from a few months down the line. But then, again, there are the secrets: like Big Star's "Daisy Glaze," the title track begins as a barely-there dirge full of late-night angst and a yearning whine from beyond, then suddenly hops into action.

This, too, is a micro-replica of what the album itself does; its midsection is wholly occupied by a beautiful but minimalistic suite of songs that sound like discordant lost demos, troubling in their rambling despair; by the under-two-minutes "Activa," with its eerie swirl of kalimba and tortured vocals, it seems to be lulling us to sleep. Then: at long last rock. The deservedly famous "Nothing Ever Happened," written by the band's rhythm section, is the emotional peak here; its feeling of triumph feels almost quaint against the emotional claustrophobia elsewhere, yet it makes sense. The band would position it in the future as their signature anthem, their "You Made Me Realise," and it's easy to understand why.

"Nothing Ever Happened" also recasts everything that comes afterward; it's here that Deerhunter first hint at the eclecticism that would make Digest such a pleasure. Cox's "Saved by Old Times" and "Twilight at Carbon Lake" bring back Stax memories, with funked-out stutter on the former, last-dance-at-prom romance on the latter. And Pundt's other contribution "Neither of Us, Uncertainly" sounds like someone's arm's-length idea of what this project was initially intended to do: it's a worthy and convincing shoegaze imitation, with even a bit of Pixies. Even if it has none of the sophistication of Cox's songs or even Pundt's own other contributions, it dares to be fun. Hence Microcastle now feels in retrospect like a split of the difference between the best work of Deerhunter, Atlas Sound and Pundt's side project Lotus Plaza. It's satisfying, detailed, intriguing, but it's an unfinished story -- for better and for worse, depending on your headspace right now.

Halcyon Digest (2010)
Monomania (2013)

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