Whereas previous Deerhunter records have seen Bradford Cox and his increasingly important associates push boundaries about as far as one can whilst still being recognisably an indie band, Monomania takes a different attitude to innovation.
In terms of song structure, their sixth album is by far their most straightforward yet. Though the band are often at their best when left to build melodies and squall over long stretches that eventually result in dazzling payoffs, they here deliver a record full of three minute, verse-bridge-chorus tunes that are by and large loathe to take even the slightest of left turns. But within the confines they’ve set themselves, they’re making the most glorious racket of their careers. It’s as if this is a band so bored with pushing boundaries that they’ve decided instead to mock them from within.
The album’s very first lyric, “finding the fluorescence in the junk”, is particularly telling. Opener ‘Neon Junkyard’ exemplifies this idea of twisting and screwing otherwise normal songs in wrists made of noises. With its strummed acoustic guitar working through an uncharacteristically straightforward layout before becoming battered, it’s the sound of Deerhunter setting up confines for themselves and then going crazy within them, smacking their heads against the walls ‘til they start to see the stars. At times, it can be quite pretty – every instrument on the marvellous ‘Dream Captain’ sounds like it’s at its own party, and the penultimate ‘Nitebike’, which sees Cox alone with his guitar emoting more plaintively than perhaps ever before, is disarming in its exquisiteness.
Yet at others, it’s either deliberately grating (‘Leather Jacket II’s confrontational glam rock stomp feels a lot longer than its mere three minutes – it’s a trick they pull off better on the title cut), borderline creepy (the plucked guitar line on ‘Blue Agent’ sounds like it’s tiptoeing around the song, waiting to jump out on its unsuspecting chorus), or rather harrowing. Despite being devoid of the first third of Monomania’s signature fuzz, the tragic tale of an insane kid brother told in ‘T.H.M.’ is made all the more uneasy for being handled with a combination of jauntiness and frantic panting. Lots changes about Deerhunter, but one suspects part of the point of whatever they’re up to is that you’re not actually meant to feel entirely comfortable with it.
Its mood is all over the place, but that suits it – the only two tracks that sound similar to one another are placed side by side, which leads to ‘Sleepwalking’ and ‘Back To The Middle’ coming across as a forgettable, Deerhunter-by-numbers double blip. The scattergun approach to the rest of the record’s aesthetic is actually what makes it so much fun. Lockett Pundt’s sole contribution ‘The Missing’ is the album’s best song, a gloriously rich showcase of just how important he is to holding what might otherwise be a shambles together, whereas on ‘Pensacola’ Cox plays it simpler than ever, both sonically and lyrically (have you ever heard him sing a line like “This town ain’t given me nothin’ but bawlin’ and trouble”?), to deliver a goofball triumph.
If it’s particularly tempting to take certain statements made on Monomania as self referential, state of the union addresses of sorts, it’s only because that’s how Cox delivers them. “In my head, there’s something rotting” he intones on the title track, “For a month / I was punk” he offers on closer ‘Punk (La Vie Antérieure)’. But though packed with trademark lyrical curiosities, it’s the sound of Monomania that’s its biggest departure. It might be a step towards something more conventional structurally, but it’s anything but a step back – for Deerhunter, any move in the direction of convention is a dip of the toes in to the unknown. It’s no wonder they make normal sound so weird.