Don’t blink—no mere mid-career album, Monomania registers as an absolute impact event, a massive dirty blast marking the moment Deerhunter’s steady trajectory spins out of control. Somehow, throughout a ridiculously prolific decade, despite the shifting offshoots of lead singer/songwriter Bradford Cox’s satellite project Atlas Sound and guitarist Lockett Pundt’s developing solo career as Lotus Plaza, despite an evolving sonic foundation and lockstep critical aclaim, somehow Deerhunter have kept all their moving parts in sync and dodged stadium fame.
Following Monomania, one side or the other will have to give.
Factoring for the group’s direction and dynamics, there’s an inevitability to Monomania that everyone should have seen coming, though in all likelihood no one saw it coming. Deerhunter are a band of loops, a band of patterns, a band of internal tensions and bonds, with each successive release serving as a continuation of and a reaction against that which came prior. The ambient lockbox Cryptograms opened up to the everything-goes sprawl of Microcastle/Weird Era which then became tightened and refined in the jangle-pop of Halcyon Digest, an egalitarian apex where every member shone as the band paid tribute to friendships past and recognized the dead-end course of adolescent bonding rituals (read: drugs).
Though tangentially related to Halcyon Digest—dismantling that record’s antecedents of rockabilly, doo-wop and blue-eyed soul through The Sonics full-force garage—Monomania rises most directly from Cox’s and Pundt’s most recent solo projects: Atlas Sound’s role-playing Parallax and Lotus Plaza’s well-lauded Spooky Action At A Distance.
Sequencing matters, so to quickly backtrack, the Deerhunter story begins before there was a band to have a story. Two teenage boys meet at a bus stop. One self-identifies as queer, one does not. Cox, the high school Scissorhands, elongated by Marfan’s Syndrome and isolated through hospital stays and a repeated grade; Pundt, all Jump Street cheekbones and dwelling melancholy. Mentor meets muse. Limitless talent meets unobtainable object. The two become inseparable.
Over time, things—by definition—change. After nearly a decade of touring and recording, Pundt and Deerhunter’s steadfast drummer Moses Archuleta began to move on with their adult lives—the regular pattern of weddings and distractions and sudden opportunities—leaving Cox alone with his songs. Songs whose irresistible hooks and arena-grade charms he’s long distorted, obfuscated, and restrained—largely for aesthetic purposes, but with an end result that those closest to him have been able to play along and still have those normal lives to pursue.
How best to measure the fixations and fissures of the dynamics at play? Parallax accounts for the way subjects and objects in motion act upon one and other, with changes in relative position altering the observable reality for each. “Spooky action at a distance,” meanwhile, is a bon mot from Einstein, referring to Quantum Entanglement and the capacity of two particles to become so ensnared they share a common existence—a connection profound enough that the pair can measurably impact one and other even when separated by galaxies of physical distance.
I’m not sure what all that means, but it sounds like some heavy shit.
Monomania’s some heavy shit, wracked with longing and ultimatums and passive-aggression and aggressive-aggression and a monumentally shredding heartbreak. Sequencing matters, and Cox—a consummate musicologist—immediately situates Monomania in the logical progression out of the Silvertone clarity of Halcyon Digest and Parallax, finding an art-savvy, scuffed-leather pose somewhere between Black Monk Time and White Light/White Heat. Not coincidentally, Monomania is also a frontman’s showcase: think Iggy, think Ziggy, I want to be a singer like Lou Reed I like Lou Reed…
The songs, yeah, none of this matters if they don’t back up the attitude, and Monomania fires into its arc with the opening squall of “Neon Junkyard” and “Leather Jacket II,” the former tricking out an elementary chord sequence with an innate, stuttering hitch and the latter scorching with feedback and slamming like an enraged version of The Troggs, only unlike every faceless basement wannabe “Wild Thing,” Cox swaggers and contorts with downtown cool, beating the living hell out of a gamelan while howling “I was too kind/ I was too kind/ That was my problem, everybody/ I was a goldmine.”
And that “goldmine” is taking his show on the road. Launching the traveling midsection of Monomania, “Pensacola” jacks one of those riffs Mike Ness used to ply with little more than outlaw clichés and body art, restoring it into a fully-loaded, festival stomper. It’s one of those songs with the makings to show up everywhere—in the opening montage for that cop show on FX, in the checkout line of that store that sells plastic purses and belt chains, in the American-made pickup of that dude who’s always maintained a very different definition of Deerhunter. In “Pensacola,” it’s hard not to see the band’s future: Pundt blearing a sidewinding lead, Frankie Broyles laying grievous peals of steel guitar, and Archuleta bashing away with a recklessness he hasn’t indulged since the band’s careening debut, Turn It Up Faggot. Above it all, Cox mutes his frets and growls through a Delta Blues recreation myth, announcing with fiery defiance that he can and will be exactly as famous as he chooses.
What’s left for those who choose not to go along? Sequencing matters, and marooned between “Leather II” and “Pensacola” is “The Missing,” Pundt’s lone vocal contribution to Monomania. In isolation, “The Missing” serves as a fine pull-track, foregrounding the washed-out vocals and waterfalling, Cure-circa-Pornography guitar that Pundt mastered to greater effect on Halcyon Digest’s majestic “Desire Lines” and in the hypnotic yearning of “Monoliths” from Spooky Action At A Distance. In the context of Monomania, “The Missing” emphasizes how Pundt remains stuck in a single artistic place, left in the rearview while Cox accelerates forward with the whole world open to him.
In the past, Cox has been forthright about writing specific songs in response to his feelings for Pundt, while also citing novelist Dennis Cooper as an early influence—a reverence that echoed in the benzoed, tunnelizing drones of Cryptograms and the dissociative sexual violence of early Atlas Sound tracks like “Bite Marks.” There was also an undeniable parallel with Closer, the novel that initiated Cooper’s “George Miles Cycle”: beautiful, melancholy George, an object of obsession and desire, available to the author as an enduring muse but ultimately unreachable.
Deerhunter are a band of loops, a band of patterns, and not only does Monomania cycle back to the progenitors of punk, Cox also spirals back to one of Cooper’s progenitors, embracing the wide-open American darkness of John Rechy’s City Of Night. Just as Rechy’s hustler epic tracked a Youngman’s search for identity from El Paso to New York and San Francisco to New Orleans, Monomania immediately reiterates “Pensacola’s” urgent need to pick up and leave with “Dream Captain,” a propulsive, Seeds-style kick anchored by Archuleta’s primal backbeat. From the creeping tempo and fluid bridge of “Blue Agent” to the very Boss, brother’s keeper narrative of “T.H.M.” to the pure pop rush of “Sleepwalking,” the traveling middle of Monomania is pitched for that American impulse to discover personal freedom through exploration and conquest.
The road, however, hits a brick wall in the organ-soaked U-turn “Back To The Middle,” a devastatingly raw excavation of crippling desire as an “endless cycle”:
“YOU AND ME
YOU BROKE FREE
YOU BROKE ME
AND YOU LEFT THESE LITTLE PIECES”
Instead of lying broken, Cox collects the shards and delivers the title track’s jagged bloodletting, a fantastically broken screed where he howls “I can’t compete with her/ Let me be released from this,” finally chanting down his refuge and his curse, music and the muse, “Mono-mono-mania, Mono-mono-mania, Mono-mono-mania,” feedback burns and bitter pain and what sounds like an honest-to-fucking-God chainsaw, that violent grinding blade the only way to make the last bloody cut.
For all of his skill at reinvention, Cox is no common chameleon—hiding in plain sight, his art has always been equal parts diversion and revelation. Wearing dresses that simultaneously draw attention away from and to his skeletal frame; flooding the internet with demos and covers that equally obscure and underscore his impeccable ear. Even as he’s toyed with new iconographies, those identities are never plastic, there’s always a recursion to the personal, and out of the wreckage of “Monomania,” Cox delivers one of his most lovely and unguarded performances in “Nitebike.” Sequencing matters, and using a minimal strum and naked upper-register, Cox lays bare the rush of feelings spawned by “Monomania,” feelings that send him straight back to childhood scars, back to the bone-sick fragility and aching otherness that crystalized in Atlas Sound tracks like “Quarantined” and “Flagstaff,” back to one of those endless returns that John Rechy referred to as “memories of that childhood I had tried to bandage by fleeing that spurious innocence.”
“Punk (La Vie Antérieure)”—or, the life prior—serves as Monomania’s final return, reviving the album’s proto-garage beginnings with a Rock The Casbah bark and riding on the most simple, symbiotic rhyme scheme, pairing “punk” with “drunk” and “days” with “daze.” Little by little Cox deconstructs the pattern, pulling bits of identity from each side until he’s reduced to a complicated nothing, singing: “For a week I was weak/ I was down on my knees/ pray to God make it stop/ help me find some relief.” Bands as diverse as Fleetwood Mac and Hüsker Dü have channeled this unsustainable, unbearable dynamic into timeless recordings and Bradford Cox—the consummate musicologist—undoubtedly knows the same history, undoubtedly knows the record that may bind his band forever may also break his band forever. Don’t blink.