Something For The Pain
There's No Returning From Deerhunter's Latest Trip to The Audio Pharmacy
It's no accident that Atlanta's Deerhunter titled its new long-player Microcastle (Kranky). Prior to the industrial era, the construction of a castle represented a display of power: Unearthing, shaping, moving, and cementing together all those big stones was no small task. Castles meant something in the same sense that, to a much greater extent, pyramids did; possessing one signified that you were more than a few tiers above the average punter.
To be sure, notoriously crabby Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox has erected more than his share of wavy-tone split-levels in the last couple years. Cox--alongside drummer/electronics guy Moses Archuleta, bassist/pianist/percussionist Josh Fauver, guitarist Lockett Pundt, and new guitarist Whitney Petty--aspires to capture in sound waves the sensation of being stuck in an especially lively prescription-drug coma.
Cox suffers from Marfan syndrome, a connective-tissue disorder that causes sufferers to appear emaciated; in some ways, his music seems intended to act as a form of self-medication, to numb both the resulting physical pain and the social ostracization that have dogged him since childhood. On 2007's Fluorescent Grey EP and Cryptograms LP, psychedelic storms, Valium-engorged ambient hum, and garage-y thrash blurred into a contact high that audiences and critics found unable to resist; think late-period My Bloody Valentine wrestling with midcareer Yo La Tengo while Stereolab referees, and you're almost there.
Then there's Cox's Atlas Sound solo project, wherein he layers exotic and commonplace instrumental elements into noisy, off-the-cuff drone pop: The excellent Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel arrived in February, and another album is due sometime next year. And as if that wasn't enough, there's the Deerhunter blog (deerhuntertheband.blogspot.com.., an uncapped geyser of videos, found photos, blather, and MediaFire links to whatever mixtapes band members are hooked on or whatever demos, finished tunes, or covers they feel inclined to share. Until Cox disabled the comments function recently, these posts routinely generated upward of 20 responses each, with overzealous fans praising and/or criticizing the band, bickering among one another, and generally gobbling up bandwidth. Keeping up with all things Cox--including his long-winded interviews and frequent, audience-baiting tour stops--almost constitutes a part-time job. It could be argued, convincingly, that this is Cox's hallucinatory sound world, and the rest of us just live in it.
For all its spaced-out, washy dissonance, Cryptograms came off as a tad too immediate, a smidgen too rough-hewn, a touch undercooked, even unfocused. Cox even unconsciously acknowledged this on "Strange Lights": "What direction should we choose?/ We're lost and still confused." With Microcastle, Deerhunter doubly rewards fans' faith and rebuffs critics who dismiss the band as all reverb/echo flash and no songwriting chops--literally, because Microcastle is actually two albums in one: Microcastle proper and a bonus disc of odds and ends titled Weird Era Cont.
Beatles-esque sketch "Backspace Century" and lounge-bop "Operation" aside, Weird Era Cont. is more or less the textbook definition of grab-bag, but it makes for an immersive listen nonetheless. Jokey titles abound, as though Deerhunter named these session leftovers at the last second: A tasty sliver of jogging-in-place art rock is called "VHS Dream," a bit of angelic quivering gets tagged "Focus Group," and so on.
To wander about the main record's hallways and foyers a few times is to be mildly nonplussed; Deerhunter's new pharmaceutical batch seems so tame, so sculptured, so . . . pristine. It takes a solid month or two to really enter Microcastle's orbit--to realize that you're inhabiting Camelot, not Joe the Plumber's trailer.
Advancing at waltz speed, the intro "Cover Me (Slowly)" teases with 81 seconds of echo-laden vertigo before "Agoraphobia" flounces gently into range. The tune is Pundt's debut as Deerhunter's co-vocalist, and he makes the most of its faded contours, spinning confinement fantasies with all the nonchalance of someone ordering a morning latte: "I have a dream, no longer to be free / I want only to see four walls made of concrete/ Six-by-six enclosed, see me on video, oh oh oh."
Immediately thereafter, as "Never Stops" opens, Cox is wishing for an escape from pain "that haunts my days." The pace picks up slightly here: Pent squalls of distortion skid in and out of focus and taut guitar patter reminiscent of the Police's "Every Breath You Take," Archuleta plays human metronome, and a narrow streak of feedback keeps things slightly off balance.
"Little Kids" is where Microcastle hits its stride, where the point of view expands outward and the listener, slightly disengaged until now, is ensnared. With Deerhunter, Cox's lyricism has never been especially strong--the music's slow-motion overload is the point, and words are just decoration. Atlas Sound has become his repository for emotional, unbalanced imagery. (Download "Holiday" for an example of something you should never, under any circumstances, throw on a best pal's mixtape.)
But "Little Kids" cuts surprisingly close to the cultural bone, painting a terrifying, post-Kids picture of youth run amok. As a wiggling stream of starched guitar strokes and synthesizer plinks worms its way in and out of misty choruses, Cox sets the scene: "Kids, drinking gin on their, their front lawn/ The kids see that man looking down their dirt road." The story is told almost in a whisper, becoming increasingly grotesque as the stranger is set ablaze for kicks and the music builds to a mild, jangling fever pitch. Cox's refrain--the too-calm "To get older still, to get older still"--is enveloped by the sheets of flickering white-noise flame that close the song.
Another sign of Deerhunter's maturity is the three-song, zone-out gulch at Microcastle's core--the band's willingness to allow the temporary impression that the record is falling apart. Lightly knitted "Calvary Scars" threads nylon guitar slides with nightmare-level imaginings: "Crucified on a cross in front of all my closest friends." Composed of rainy-day piano drippings and fret ditherings, "Green Jacket" suggests total and utter disconnection from nerve centers. The nautical "Activa," meanwhile--the ground beneath you seems to list as its two minutes pass--brushes blissfully away at some vague melody like a fussy paleontologist at work on a dig site.
The rhythm-section crunch announcing "Nothing Ever Happened" yanks Microcastle back from the brink of out-and-out ecstasy, as Cox invites us to "focus on the depth that was never there," adding that "Nothing's easy, nothing's fair" before the band shifts into one of those stretched-out grooves that Strokes albums are chock-full of. But nocturnal "Twilight at Carbon Lake" is the real pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Here, as Cox doles out instructions on how to cope with some unspecified despair--"Go towards the mirror and pray that you'll see/ Someone else"--an upscale/downscale ditty à la "Unchained Melody" smolders into an all-out, amps-to-11 conflagration that lingers in memory long after the din finally subsides.
The Deerhunter that emerges on Microcastle takes songcraft much more seriously--this is a band of artisans, not day laborers. This grayscale fortress comes equipped with moats, towers, dungeons, and more--it just takes longer than expected to realize that they're there and to acknowledge that they've laid claim to your affections.
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