Deerhunter's Monomania: Fluorescence in the Junk
March 9, 2017 | by C.M. Crockford
The song “Monomania” was performed on the April 2, 2013 show of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. I've never forgotten Deerhunter's appearance there — it is lodged in my brain. The band in a swirl of fog, feedback, and squalls of sound erupting in anticipation. Bradford Cox, tall and beautiful and rough and imposing, in a black wig obscuring his features, snarling lyrics of vulnerability and stunned isolation: “My only boy couldn't leave his lady, well-uh / Come boy, let me say, well-uh / If you wanna be with me, yeah / I could be your home... awwwwaayyyyyyuhhh!” Cox becomes, in this song, Querelle of Brest, Dr. Benway, Hannibal Lecter, a male fatale, a rock 'n' roll god, a heartless fiend. “Monomania” is an ur-rock song: a plea for salvation from someone who has no grace except in their embrace of damnation. They are indelicate, queer, crude, utterly themselves, and in doing so are doomed.
At the end of the scene, Bradford cries "Mono-mono-mani-a" over and over as the band vamps and slides into degradation, the word emerging as a diagnosis, a mantra, a catharsis. Then he walks off the stage, serene, gliding through the plastic, functional NBC studios in bliss, taking a cup of water from the assistant and tossing it over his shoulder because he is a rock star, and he is aware of the power of that carelessness somehow, the singular show of will, and the band finishes without him, crashing into wailing pre-recorded voices, screaming strings.
Monomania was released in 2013 after Halcyon Digest, a 2010 album that is still probably Deerhunter's best record. Digest is gorgeous indie rock, its shimmering keyboard effects and reverb-washed vocals showcasing a transition from innocence into experience, adulthood, and heartbreak. Lockett Pundt's song “Desire Lines” is the centerpiece, a driving and dreamy guitar track whose last instrumental half has a haze and a transcendent quality no rock single of the decade has really achieved. Now Monomania... Monomania is about creatures who've forgotten innocence a long time ago (the only exception is Pundt's solo credit “The Missing,” more of a piece with Digest in its pleading to “shelter me.”) The narrator of all the songs is a spiteful, poor, fucked up thing, hanging onto life with bare claws, who belongs with the trash in the gutter.
Monomania is a punk record then that actually grapples with the origins of punk, rock 'n' roll, and some of the moods and sexual implications surrounding that music. The songs are filled with savage one-liners, references to other songs (“I'm a poor boy from a poor family!”) and wretched reflections on queerdom. The closer “Punk (La Vie Anteireure)” is a wry, subdued ending for the album as Cox, with a grin on his face, thinks about how “For a month I was punk / I remembered all my drunk younger days in a daze / I would spend my empty days.” It's a guy musing on identity, how he tried to fill in the gaps of who he was with a subculture, booze, sex, whatever works. It's a smaller, goofier conclusion than expected, but I think it circles around to what Monomania is trying to showcase. You get into indie rock or punk or whatever, because it just clicks into place with who you are and your experiences. And that sense of belonging either disappears after awhile when you don't need it anymore or just stays there forever.
The sound is thus a sort of indie deconstruction of rock, both genuinely filled with great garage and punk songs but also very aware of what it's doing — a collage of familiar chord patterns bent and distorted. “Pensacola” is Cox's stab at a blues rock song, lazy, carefree, of the same sort of ease and heedlessness as any of Diddley's great singles, while “Leather Jacket II” is a hard rock single fed through a wood chipper, stomping, loud, but every feedback screech and lyric is fed through amplified reverb.
Opener “Neon Junkyard” has Cox instructing that “Finding the fluorescence in the junk / By night illuminates the day.” It is the thesis of the record, maybe in rock music as a whole — find the beauty in decaying, what's hidden in the refuse. There's a salvation in the underground, in the corners of the world few will ever draw near. The abandoned houses, empty bottles, darkened bars, the train tracks shut down long ago. The song lifts you off your feet, as near the end Cox coos against a thudding drum beat, soaring into nowhere before coming back down to earth.
Cox has described the album recently as “hateful” and emerging from a bad time in his own life. Their 2015 release Fading Frontier felt like a return to the thinking of Halcyon Digest, at trying for happiness (one of the songs is called “Living My Life”). But for me, optimism and self-care in music isn't a mood or subject that draws me in much. It's Monomania I return to over and over, Monomania that is indeed “hateful,” damaged, ambitious, and funny. When I listen to it, I see ripped up basements, clubs past their prime, illegal warehouses, people living in the outer edges of America. I think of shows I've played, walking down the road listening to Dylan. And I connect to the man in a dark wig on national television, shouting a single dejected word into oblivion, conjuring up something confident and Satanic that I have always had inside of me and can't always put into words.
Listen to Monomania