At what point did Bradford Cox become a real rock star? Did it begin with Deerhunter’s first album, Turn It Up Faggot? Or did it happen when he first began releasing his solo recordings under the name Atlas Sound? Was it on the psychedelic shoegaze vision quest of Microcastle? Was it when he let that saxophone take the reigns on Halcyon Digest’s “Coronado”? Or was it when he showed up on Jimmy Fallon a few weeks ago and performed the title track to his band’s latest album, Monomania, while wearing a tattered black wig and bloody bandages on his fingers? It’s impossible to know for sure. This type of calculation is a fool’s game, but it’s the kind of thinking that Cox, one of indie rock’s only totally singular frontmen left standing, inadvertently inspires. To put it more succinctly: What’s his deal?
None of these questions are answered by Monomania, Deerhunter’s playful swerve of an album. After the polished dream-pop of Halcyon Digest and the crooning, precise confidence of Atlas Sound’s Parallex, Cox and Deerhunter are at an odd place. Cox feels like a star but his band still traffics in obfuscation. The two are developing at different rates: Cox tosses out controversial opinions like confetti, staging performance art pranks and toying with your expectations; Deerhunter has only grown more shrouded in mystery. Deerhunter still feels more hesitant as a band, but on Monomania Cox has taken control of the ship and steered it straight into adventurous and occasionally choppy waters.
In interviews Cox has described the album as a rather straight-forward “rock” record, but it actually takes a few tracks for the band to work itself into a fittingly retromaniacal froth. The record’s opening bits of squall, “Neon Junkyard” and “Leather Jacket II,” are more sketches than songs, snotty blasts of raw energy and cathartic release. The album reaches its full potential on “Pensacola,” a twang-ey, careening piece of slop-rock that sounds like someone left the Strokes out in the sun for too long, all the steely fuck-me swagger bleached into a smeared, calloused blur. Like most great rock songs, it’s about the road, or the idea of the road as a place of transcendence and escape, but under Cox’s guiding hand it feels invigorating. At one point he calls out “Let’s go” and it’s easy to jump right on board—even though it looks like a bumpy ride.
The album is full of weary invitations and conflicted descriptions of transportation: On “Dream Captain” Cox opens the song with a defiant “Dream captain take me on your ship/I’ve been feeling like I’m gonna be sick.” Despite the raucous, Black-Lips-playing-a-neon-basement-show quality to the record, Cox can’t help but apply a thick layer of melancholy and a touch of paranoia to even the more unhinged, garage rock moments. Cox’s solo music has always felt more romantic than his more murmured Deerhunter work, but here the lines become blurrier. At the end of “Blue Agent” he quietly sighs, “The sky is clearer now/And I’m filled with fright.” “Sleepwalking” and “Back To Middle” are equally catchy and rescinded, though I can imagine either track being given a rough, feedback-filled makeover in a live setting.
Following bassist Josh Fauver’s departure, the band can occasionally sound unmoored, and compared to the inventiveness of the group’s last two records, it’s possible to see this one as a step backwards. Guitarist and co-writer Lockett Pundt, who was the the not-so-secret-star of Halcyon Digest and who crafted a serene collection of guitar-pop under the Lotus Plaza banner on 2012′s Spooky Action At A Distance, recedes to the background on this record, taking vocal duties only on “The Missing,” an effective but hardly attention-grabbing bit of chiming dream-pop. This is the Bradford Cox show. It’s hard not to feel like this album is an effort to reconfigure the band around Cox, which is fitting because he’s at his most compelling here, never more so than on the album’s poignant centerpiece “T.H.M.” Over a delicate guitar line and pitter-patter percussion, Cox seems to be describing the birth and death of a friend (possibly a twin brother?) but at the end he tuns the mirror on himself. “Ever since I was born/I have felt so forlorn,” he sings. “I always knew this day would come/Hey you lose and you win some.”
Deerhunter wins more than it loses on Monomania. Cox obviously has a set of rock deities that he’s genuflecting before here: Lou Reed, Joey Ramone, Patti Smith, Bo Diddley, Elvis. Not Morrissey. It’s apparent from recent comments that he’s grown tired of being measured on the sliding scale of indie rock or pinned down by the platitudes of punk. At one point during a recent interview with Pitchfork, Cox described his punk ideal as being “provocative without being political.” Strangely enough, that abstract, nonsensical quality is least present on the record’s closing song, “Punk (La Vie Antérieure),” which feels both confessional and epochal. As the song builds to a conclusion, the patient strum of Cox’s guitar does battle with an array of guitar effects and sound collage elements that sound shipped in from earlier Deerhunter recordings—quaking tremors, bomb-like reverb, psychedelic catcalls—but at the end only the acoustic guitar remains. It’s a powerful moment: the sound of Cox casting off not only demons, but unwanted versions of himself.