Beginning of the End: Best albums of 2013 Part I: Deerhunter – “Monomania”

Deerhunter - "Monomania"
Deerhunter – “Monomania”

It’s about that time of year. Album releases are slowing to a trickle as the year draws to a close. I think that since I have been listening to so many new things this year, things that I haven’t had the opportunity to talk about yet that I will begin with my year end posts interspersed with all of the other things that I normally post about. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to get through all of them, but I’ll try.

It took me until the release of “Halcyon Digest” in 2010 to really get into Deerhunter. I had made several unsuccessful attempts to really get into “Cryptograms,” but for some reason I just couldn’t. It made me feel out of place, because when that album came out everyone was going crazy for it. I needed to come at the band backward apparently, because after falling in love with “Halcyon Digest,” and now “Monomania,” I have finally gained an appreciation for “Cryptograms.” If nothing else Deerhunter’s latest  has done at least that.

Somewhere along the line Deerhunter shed its ambient leanings (and a few band members) to become a powerful and moving rock band. Songs like “Leather Jacket II,” with distorted vocals and guitars that are constantly feeding back, being paired with “The Missing” show the range that the band has developed since their first releases. I don’t want to throw the word “folk” around, because that is really not fitting at all, but the style of Bradford Cox’s lyric and melody writing have allowed the band to sound a bit more vulnerable in general. Deerhunter is perfecting what it means to them to be a band that can release album after album of compact singles.

To me, the band is more effective and affecting in their quieter moments, but that isn’t to say that the title track isn’t one of the tracks that I automatically go to when I put this album on. And there are songs that fit nicely in between the extremes, such as the country twinge of “Pensacola.” That tracks rambling and bluesy vocal approach, “the girl that I loved, well, took another man” followed by a dejected “ohh” is followed immediately by the excitement contained in the line “well nothin’ ever ends up quite like how you planned!” These elements play an important role, the juxtaposition of elation and sadness. The sadness is kept in check through the nature of the tracks being upbeat major key (mostly) 3 to 4 minute pop tunes, but lyrically things may take a turn on occasion. For example on “Sleepwalking” the line “can’t you see, we’ve grown apart, we’ve grown apart?” is repeated or in “Back to the Middle” the lyric “You and me, you broke free. You broke free, and you left me these little pieces,” both obviously come from places of sadness, though that sadness is hidden behind the music.

To that end, maybe it isn’t as upbeat an album as it appears to be on the surface. Perhaps the album is about covering up true emotions, putting on a good face to go out and greet the world. If one was to look at things that way then perhaps this is actually the most tortured album of Deerhunter’s career.

Generally more upbeat in outward tone when compared to “Halcyon Digest,” the album, to its merit, doesn’t exemplify its title. The songs here are not simply variations on a theme, or expressing one color of the musical spectrum. There are differing shades at work that peak with the title track (that, yes, is an undeniably great song to depict the idea of monomania), allowing for the songs that lead up to it a lot of license to go exploring. The closing track allows Bradford Cox some time for reflection. “Punk (La Vie Antérieure),” makes peace with the past, perhaps allowing himself to accept the different phases in his life that have allowed him to get to the place where he is now. I think it’s more a cross between that and Cox still searching for his true self. Either way it is a song about growth and change, and coming to terms for better or worse.

I can’t help but think (and I’m probably fairly safe in this assumption) that Cox’s Atlas Sound project, and the process that he goes through to write and produce those songs, has been influencing the songs that are ending up on Deerhunter albums. A song like “T.H.M” or “Sleepwalking” only have the slightest hints of where the band came from, but nothing as driven and tuneful as these two tracks appears prior.

This album belongs on anyone’s year of, best of list. And a performance on Jimmy Fallon stands as another favorite from this year. Check out Deerhunter playing “Monomania” just prior to the May 7th release of the album below.

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