Deerhunter are one of those very fortunate indie rock bands who have managed to achieve a surprising amount of critical and popular consensus. I would imagine that, when all is said and done, there are a good number of NME-fronting four pieces who may have had more hits (briefly) or Glastonbury-fueled hype, but who ultimately would trade it all, now that they have been exposed as being irrelevant and fatuous, for Deerhunter’s less heralded but more sturdy popularity.
As annoying as Deerhunter can be at times, I’d still embrace every one of their shoegaze-meets-pop-rock songs if it meant we could banish every overhyped, moronic, culturally insignificant release by Kasabian, Kaiser Chiefs, The Enemy and Babyshambles into the abyss of non-existence. But, if Monomania signals anything, it’s that, as superior as Deerhunter may be to the aforementioned dogshit, they actually sit much closer to mainstream “indie” than their cheerleaders would have us believe.
It’s all the more frustrating because Deerhunter have often promised a lot, only to fall just short of their much-publicised influences, generally due to a lack of proper filtering. From Cryptograms to Halcyon Digest, you often got the feeling that frontman Bradford Cox lacked the discipline to cut away excess and inferior tunes, culminating in their baroque pop album Microcastle being released with an entire extra album tacked on. Ironically, perhaps, said bonus record, Weird Era Cont. has always struck me as being the band’s most striking release, outdoing its parent in terms of melodies, atmosphere and general bizarreness.
At their best, Deerhunter can reach heady climes of drone-based rock, consolidating their influences (krautrock, drone, punk, post-punk) into crisp, dreamy slices of pop-rock, all driven by Bradford Cox’s melancholic lyrics and fragile voice. They also cast their net wide enough, with the fuzzy shoegaze-meets-punk of Cryptograms differing remarkably from Halcyon Digest‘s monochrome dream pop. On Monomania, they take a reverse turn and move away from their more opulent recent output to reconnect with their more brittle beginnings. It’s possibly their most upbeat and punchy release to date.
‘Neon Junkyard’ is a classic opening track, the kind that seems to immediately set the album’s tone with its choppy acoustic guitar riffs, swirling synth effects, sweeping electric guitar lines and driving drums. Cox’s voice is multi-tracked and distorted dramatically, and the track collapses to a close after just under three minutes. The message is clear: this is Deerhunter unfettered and raw, as beholden to Hüsker Dü and Pixies as they are to their ancestors on 4AD like Cocteau Twins.
‘Leather Jacket II’ continues the trend, at even greater levels of thrash, all distorted guitars and mumbled vocal phrases. If the band had built on this intensity over the course of the rest of Monomania, they might have had a winner on their hands, but most of the remaining ten tracks are slight, like echoes of their previous work, from ‘The Missing”s drifting pop-rock plod, which sounds like a Microcastle outtake, to the dull garage stylings of ‘Dream Captain’. Most of the album sounds like a kaleidoscope of every “indie” rock archetype, to the point that, whilst it’s never debatable that Monomania is a Deerhunter record, you still find yourself thinking of Silversun Pickups, The Black Keys, The Flaming Lips or Arcade Fire, not necessarily with positive comparisons in mind.
Most irritating is Cox’s voice, which is excessively layered with the kind of effects Julian Casablancas favours. OK, so Cox’s wistful yelp is more endearing than the Strokes man’s self-satisfied croak, but over the course of 45 minutes, it rapidly gets tiresome. The hefty title track occasionally flirts with the sort of robust rock of the opening two tracks, scrambling to a sort of overdriven finale befitting its title, but with so many of the other pieces sounding either rough, out of place or uninspired (notably ‘Pensacola’, which sounds like a drab Crazy Horse number recorded during the American Stars’n’Bars sessions), Deerhunter never achieve cohesion of style or energy on Monomania. As ever, there is a talented band at play here, but not one that has the consistency to match the column inches I’m sure it will generate.