There’s something unsettled and bipolar about Deerhunter’s fifth album, Monomania. At one end of the spectrum, Bradford Cox fronts the band through big psychedelic, avant punk freakouts layered with fat guitar noises and double-tracked, distorted vocals. At the other, there’s a saccharine rhythm and blues influence that fits right in with Cox’s recent work with Atlas Sound. But between these two seemingly disparate poles, Cox conducts himself just as monomaniacally (and, perhaps, egomaniacally) as ever, and it is his unwavering vision that ultimately keeps Monomania from running off the rails.
Neon Junkyard begins the record with a scattershot collection of false starts before Cox’s heavily distorted – but intensely and serpentinely melodic – voice cuts through the mix. Chaos abounds here and the listener is invited into the tumultuous vacuum tossing through Cox’s head. He supposedly wrote 20 songs for every one that ended up on the album, and the weight of sleepless nights deciding which of his darlings to kill comes through at fever pitch. Leather Jacket II continues the overly macho thing with squalling guitars and a hypnotic groove, Cox still cloaked in layers of double-tracked distortion.
The Missing finds the album finally settling down into something like melodic accessibility, while Pensacola feels like an off-kilter, southern-fried ode to the wayfaring bluesmen who traipsed about the Florida Panhandle long before Cox’s time. Blue Agent sounds like a tossed-off castaway from the latest The Strokes album with its simple, repeated guitar line and lazily mechanical drumming. And, really, the same can be said for T.H.M., but there’s something ethereally dreamy about this one that hints at a depth of emotion and longing that Julian Casablancas has never reached.
Back To The Middle and the album’s title track bring back the brawny promise of the album’s one-two opening shots. The former manages to marry noise with sweetness in a way that is charming, but not immediately so. The latter fulfils the album’s titular obligations with razor-sharp precision. The whole thing flounders, like heat rising from the hood of a muscle car that’s just wrapped itself around the only tree for miles in a brain-meltingly devastating desert. The manically repeated refrain (“Mono-monomania!”) raises to cacophonous levels and becomes the mantra of an obsessed man finding himself off balance at last.
Perhaps the finest moment on Monomania comes after the storm. Nitebike is the polar opposite of the title track. Built on the fragile backbone of ham-fisted acoustic guitar and Cox’s reverb-saturated voice (which this time out sounds like the winsome howl of a desert coyote wailing at the dangling axe of a distant moon), the song brings things back down from the dizzying heights of Monomania.
It’s the two warring sides of Cox’s self-diagnosed monomania that make Deerhunter’s fifth album what it is. And what it is, is a fine follow-up to 2009’s Halcyon Digest and another example of what can happen when a brilliant songwriter retreats into his own head and comes out with visions of monsters.