Being an outsider isn’t as easy as it seems. Just ask the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, whose instant classic “Maps” sabotaged their outsider ArtStar cachet and took Karen O. from a wild young singer to a “fashionista” lifestyle brand in the blink of an eye. Ask the living members of Nirvana, the quintessential outsiders of the ’90s. So unprepared was Kurt Cobain for being the singer of the BIGGEST BAND IN THE WORLD, that he first attempted to out-punk the mainstream by channeling Jesus Lizard on the Steve Albini-recorded In Utero and then, when his natural talent for writing hooks betrayed him, took a much darker turn into drugs, depression and a tragic death.
Let’s back up and say that there are a million ways that bands go from being lonely, misunderstood kids obsessing over records in their bedrooms to accidental superstars: hit singles, breakout performances, a sound that perfectly captures a time period, a look that every kid wants to emulate… The paths to unwanted stardom are numerous. Yet the avenues back to underdog critics’ darling are few. Once you’re in with the “in crowd,” don’t expect the kids hanging out under the bridge to have a spare cigarette waiting for your return. Truly, you can’t go home again. (See, for example, Radiohead’s 1998 feature-length documentary about loneliness at the top, Meeting People Is Easy.)
Enter Deerhunter, outsider saints, eternal loners and occasional provocateurs. Without fail, Deerhunter records find their way to year-end best-of lists without topping any sales charts or providing the scene-stealing soundtrack to a modern movie moment. Instead, Deerhunter have been walking a tightrope that few navigate successfully. Sure, the Liars keep churning out captivating post-everything noise without being co-opted by fame and fortune. But even they lack the perpetual motion of Deerhunter’s pop song machinery. In that way, there’s something very ’90s about Deerhunter: Even in exile from the mainstream, they fill their noise up with unabashed pop hooks, recalling early Dinosaur Jr. Even in ecstatic moments of aggression, there’s a pervasive ennui that keeps the listener at arm’s length. If this reminds you of Sonic Youth’s push-and-pull aesthetic, it should — SY is an obvious forebear. But Deerhunter seem less ambiguous and yet more ambivalent. They fucking hate you or they hate playing for you or they’re in love with you and blissed out in search of an elusive perfect dream sound… Or whatever — you just don’t understand them and you never will.
This is the maddening and deeply enthralling quality that’s at the heart of what keeps Deerhunter from turning into the Next Big Thing. They are so truly alienated that their music is often quite alienating. Starting with the unofficial title of their first record, Turn It Up, Faggot, they’ve taken the slurs thrown at them and redirected the venom at the audience. The music pulses like a wounded animal, switching between violent outbursts, vulnerable lulls, resigned moans and fevered euphoria.
In the subsequent series of wildly imagined and deftly executed records, Deerhunter kept refining their sound and songwriting skills while confounding the expectations placed on them. 2007’s Cryptogramshad solidly built songs surrounded by a shroud of hazy, droning noise, effectively encrypting its message. The following year’s Microcastle integrated the dreamy psych into a structure of pop songs, hinting that Deerhunter were on the verge of an impenetrable little masterpiece. Further proof of an impending breakthrough came in the non-stop clarity of 2010’s Halcyon Digest, the band’s most immediate release to date.
Despite a string of unstoppable songs like “Revival,” “Nothing Ever Happened,” “Never Stops” and “Fluorescent Grey,” Deerhunter has never experienced a crossover moment. No record has distilled a vision as neatly as In the Aeroplane Over the Sea or Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space. Likewise, no Deerhunter song has been as immediately accessible as Spoon’s “I Turn My Camera On” or Dirty Projectors’ “Stillness Is the Move.” Still, it feels like Deerhunter have eluded fame rather than let fame elude them. See, for instance, the confrontational antics of their Morrissey-bashing singer, Bradford Cox, who is quickly becoming the enfant terrible of American rock. See the obsessive oversharing of the members’ many side projects (all incredibly accomplished considering their rate of release).
Monomania, Deerhunter’s newest album, will do little to change this. Instead of refining and strengthening, the band has taken another unexpected leap. Where previously guitars sparkled and droned, here they grate and whine. Where Bradford Cox’s vocals used to sigh and float on a wave of noise, here they distort and shout. On Monomania, the songs are shorter and the hooks are more succinct but the biggest moments are often subverted, rather than amplified. When you’ve been recording as long and steadily as Deerhunter, you know a good hook when you hear it. You know how to dress it up and highlight its beauty. After a few years of making music, it actually becomes harder to bury a hook than to knock it out of the park. But, on Monomania, that’s what Bradford Cox & Co. do, repeatedly.
The chants of “mono-mono-mania” are low in the mix as guitars storm on top of them. The lyrics to “The Missing” are enunciated just vaguely enough to eschew the swoony pop magic that the Zombies perfected (and no one’s quite replicated since). “Pensacola” gives us the shambolic strut of the Strokes without any of their money. “Dream Captain” delivers a chorus so addictive that you can’t help but remember that Queen wrote it first.
All of this is only to say: if Deerhunter wanted to write a perfect, show-stealing record, they certainly could. But that would almost be too obvious. Too tacky.
Instead, they deliver a record full of crackle and hiss. One that repeatedly uses the low fidelity of the vocal takes to accentuate the snap of the rhythm section (best utilized on “Punk: La Vie Antérieure”). A record of small but effective magic tricks, like the transition from “Dream Captain” to “Blue Agent,” revealing the two songs to be the same basic groove in different tempos. Tricks like the swirling climax of “Sleepwalking” where the refrain, “Can’t you see?/ We’ve grown apart now” is delayed through a tape echo, making the “now” assume a never-ending dimension.
Where previous Deerhunter records evoked a hazy daydream, Monomania starkly contrasts the dark and the vivid, like the neon cross on a church at midnight. In fact, there’s no better description for the record than the singer’s own tag: “nocturnal garage.” The record explores the sonic territory of the late, great Jay Reatard (a friend of the band) and even steps into Cloud Nothings’ world a couple times but they always bring their own sinisterly prismatic sensibility to the fore.
Maybe what makes Deerhunter so thrilling is that they can do anything and still be one of a kind. Not only are they inimitable but they can wear any mask and still be identifiably them. This paradox might be why they’re about as big as a band can be without being superstars. This ubiquity may be what makes Deerhunter so interesting and also keeps them from capturing the hearts of a generation.