Saturday, August 10, 2013

album review: 'monomania' by deerhunter (RETRO REVIEW)

Let me talk to you about a pet peeve of mine: when people say 'the lyrics don't matter'.

I've gotten this comment from a number of people, and it's often followed by 'I just listen to the music, I don't care about the lyrics'. And you know, there's a bit of an argument there - ultimately, the musical compositions should be what we get behind, the instrumentation and production that composes the elements of the song, the strength of the vocalist's delivery when singing. And a lot of critics have done very well in the field of describing what works and what doesn't about said compositions, pointing out the individual elements that come together to create the music.

But here's my huge problem with this: the lyrics are still part of the song. Somebody still sat down and wrote them to fit the instrumentation, or composed the instrumentation to match with the lyrics. If the lyrics didn't matter at least a little to the artists, why don't they just fill the vocals of their track with vocal gymnastics or general incoherence? Why don't they just use nonsense words if the lyrics don't matter?

Well, the thing is, most musicians do care about lyrics - it's arguably the most straightforward way in which they can communicate their message (if they have one). Sure, you can draw interpretations from the instrumentation, particularly through the consideration of contextual sampling (see: Kanye West, The Beastie Boys, Eminem, etc.) and discuss the emotions and thoughts the artists are attempting to evoke, but the most direct way in which they communicate their message are the lyrics, and as a critic, it should be my role to interpret, explain, and analyze that message. You know, do some legwork in discerning the artistic intent and then explaining whether or not the execution of said intent actually worked.

But too often, I've seen too many critics fall into the trap of just describing what the music is. They talk about the sound that the music creates and maybe scratch the surface of the message informed by the lyrics, and even then, that particular deeper analysis is cursory at best. That's not being a critic, that's being an observer with a thesaurus. And I'll admit it, this underlying peeve is why I tend to have more acceptance for country and pop music: sure, the lyrics might be shallow or vapid or incredibly stupid, but at least they matter in the mix (particularly in country music, where less emphasis is on instrumentation and more on lyrics). 

On the same note, a lot of indie rock that opts to bury the lyrics deep at the back of the mix where they're borderline unintelligible really frustrates me. Without lyrical context, i feel like I'm grasping at straws to interpret or criticize the material, and I'm stuck asking why they're burying the vocals instead of actually paying attention to the instrumentation - instead of taking in the entire musical piece, I'm stuck listening for one component. Let me also stress that this is different than dirty vocals (like what you see in black metal and death metal) - that's a vocal style that's intended to sound threatening or scary, and once you get a handle on how to listen to those vocals, the lyrics are often easy enough to make out. But there are some bands who bury their lyrics under vocal effects  and distortion where I can't make out what they're saying without pulling up the lyrics online - and in those cases, I get why many music critics will just throw up their hands and talk about the band's 'sound' (the unfortunate problem is that too often the band gets critical acclaim based off the sound alone). 

So with all of that in mind, I was left distinctly dissatisfied when I started going through Deerhunter's discography in preparation for reviewing their newest album Monomania, particularly with their debut (unfortunately titled 'Turn It Up F****t'). It was an album dedicated to their late bassist Justin Bosworth, and has been repeatedly disowned by lead guitarist and singer Bradford Cox. I'm glad he thinks that way, mostly because putting aside the title, this album is terrible. It's clearly a case of instrumentation trumping any coherent vocals (considering there wasn't any due to terrible binaural recording techniques, it wasn't much of an accomplishment), and when looking up the lyrics, I can understand why: it was a load of trite, overwrought, teenage nonsense.

Fortunately, the band did mostly learn from that with their follow-up Cryptograms, which cleaned up some of the vocals and was generally much stronger (the second half was better than the first). I'll admit that Deerhunter does an excellent job creating expansive psychedelic soundscapes, but in cleaning up the vocals, Deerhunter exposed the lyrics, which might dance around the themes of 'death and companionship', but rarely coalesced into any coherent or all that impactful. This is mostly due to Bradford Cox's stream-of-conscience delivery, which led to interesting enough ideas, but nothing all that meaningful. 

Their third album Microcastle took things a step further and cleaned up the production even further, moving towards an even tighter focus and great accessibility. Logically, this should make the album my favourite of the three thus far, but these choices also exposed an uglier theme of the album: self-absorption to the point of myopia and paranoia, and a Peter Pan complex that could rival that of Billy Joe Armstrong. Yes, I get that Bradford Cox has had many brushes with death thanks to his genetic condition Marfan Syndrome, but his repeated refusals to grow up or properly deal with how his life will inevitably progress (even to the point of denigrating those who have grown up and who will 'wait to grow old') shows an astounding lack of maturity. Granted, this attitude was visible on his debut, but it rears its head in a big way on Microcastle, showing how he'd be most comfortable sealing himself away in a bubble, away from reality and consequence. 

And you know, this would actually be tolerable if the framing of this individualist vision had context or deeper insight or showed an iota of self-awareness - and for a few moments on Deerhunter's Weird Era Cont. (their follow-up the same year after Microcastle leaked very early), fragments of that context appears... but it's also on this album that Deerhunter returned to bad habits and shoved the vocals to the absolute back of the mix where it would be impossible to hear. At this point, I nearly threw up my hands and gave up, and if it wasn't for the strong instrumentation, I would have stopped listening to Deerhunter entirely.

Fortunately, I didn't give up - and good thing too, because their follow-up 2010 album Halcyon Days was probably my favourite of their discography thus far. Not only do they make the vocals audible, Cox actually executes a thematic throughline surprisingly well, various associated memories of discovering new music. Sometimes they were thrilling, sometimes they were chilling, but all of which were emotional and inspired a reaction that had context and made sense. It's one of the few places I argue Cox's stream-of-conscience lyrics actually work, because they fit the moment-by-moment flow of the album. Yes, the album is still self-indulgent at points (and also weirdly 'flat' at points in production - for a band so frequently trying to sound big, Deerhunter sure has a hard time getting it right), but the instrumentation was stronger than ever (drawing a lot of influence from 60's rock) and Cox showed signs of improvement. 

And thus, in the end, I was enthused going into Monomania - could it be even better than its predecessor and surprise me all the more?

Youtube review after the jump

Well, no. Let me make this clear, Deerhunter's newest album is okay and does contain a few of my favourite ever songs from the band, but it's far from great and probably won't land on my list of best albums of the year (on that note, it's not as good as Halcyon Days). But that doesn't prevent Monomania from being one of the more intriguing albums to talk about this year, and explaining why it didn't quite click with me is interesting in its own right.

For starters, the majority of 'typical' Deerhunter traits are on display here: excellent instrumentation, far weaker technical songwriting, and Bradford Cox's myopic self-interest taking center stage once again. However, while on previous albums his vocals were buried behind studio effects and were situated at the back of the mix, this time they've been shoved to the very front - and then made mostly indecipherable under waves of distortion and static. Don't get me wrong, it's better than previous albums, but it did nothing for my patience or excused the fact that I still had to go digging for lyrics elsewhere.

Now believe it or not, this does represent a style shift for Deerhunter, and a big one at that. Like The Yeah Yeah Yeahs' recent album Mosquito, this album reportedly inspired by a 'return to their roots' of loud, garage-inspired noise rock, and it does the band a lot of credit that they're able to create memorable and interesting melodies out of this stylistic shift. And unlike their debut (which I strongly disliked), Deerhunter does manage to convey a lot of attitude and presence in the instrumentation instead of amateurish trash.

However, here's where the problems start, and we can point directly at Bradford Cox as the primary source - namely that whenever Deerhunter are attempting to sound tough or arrogant or have any sort of sleaze or swagger, it's laughably executed. Try as he might (and putting aside his reputation for instability), I just can't buy into Bradford Cox as any sort of singer who could believably sell this sort of material. I'm reminded of Jay Sean's attempts to be seductive on Neon - it's an attitude that just doesn't work for them and it renders the attempts at 'grittier' songwriting more than a little hilarious. And with that in mind, I found myself liking their more toned-down and organic tracks like 'Pensacola' and 'Sleepwalking' and 'Back To The Middle', where Cox seems to be playing this new brash Americana with at least some self-awareness.

But then again, that might be the point. The more I examine the songwriting on this album, the more I notice elements of irony and parody. 'Dream Captain' seems to be a song more invested in gutting southern rock of its precious masculinity than celebrating it. 'Blue Agent' could be considered to have ambiguous framing, viciously attacking the douchebaggery of the narrator rather than embracing it (still doesn't make the song particularly listenable, though). And 'Nitebike' sure seems like a takedown of 'road ballads' to me. Hell, the bonus track 'Punk' seems completely designed to denigrate the punk musician lifestyle in scathing terms.

So okay, Monomania is trying to be a parody album, ironically targeting and lampooning the traits of the musical style they're playing. I can get behind that. Hell, I'd even argue it makes some degree of sense with the title track and the 'theme' of monomania: getting so lost in a singular focus/delusion that they lose that necessary context to think or act rationally. So thus, by playing said material with a degree of self-conscious irony, Deerhunter are showing the dangers of completely subsuming to the lifestyle promoted by said material instead of taking it with a grain of salt. And if I bought into Bradford Cox's mad genius (which for the most part, I don't), I'd even say he had the forethought to make this album just as self-referential about his previous material (that's certainly what Pitchfork thinks regarding 'Punk'), which is inspired in a twisted way.

But here's the big sticking point for me, and the reason why even if we consider Monomania to have parodic intent, I don't think they stick the landing. This is what I call the 'Beastie Boys/Ke$ha Paradox', where the material you present can be read on two different and simultaneously legitimate levels: on the level of celebrating the subject matter; and on the level of ironically making commentary on it. And on the three songs I mentioned above that I actually like ('Pensacola', 'Sleepwalking', and 'Back To The Middle'), you see this balance working, and the explanation for that is incredibly simple: Deerhunter has always been a band with a strong pop sensibility, and it comes out the most in these songs, and it helps that they sell them believably. Hell, most critics were expecting Deerhunter to go in a pop direction for this album and maybe have that massive-crossover hit (and on the Billboard charts right now, they'd probably do quite well).

But on most of the rest, there is none of that balance. Coming back to 'Blue Agent' (easily one of the worst songs Deerhunter have ever put on record), the lyrics paint the song's narrator as having acrid contempt and monstrous arrogance that any sort of ironic recontextualization falls painfully flat. And it gets all the worse when you consider how poorly Bradford Cox is selling this sort of material, with only his delivery providing any trace of ironic detachment, which feels like compensation for poor lyrical subject matter. And with the songs on the more parodic side of the balance, there's little to no humour or levity to balance out the incredibly blunt bits of criticism, and the songwriting isn't nearly sophisticated enough to back it up. Compared to Say Anything's vicious song 'Admit It!!!' lambasting their critics, Deerhunter's winking, quasi-ironic dancing around the issue is painfully weak. 

And as always, this comes back to the songwriting - because on a technical level, Bradford Cox just isn't good enough pull off this kind of material. There's a level of finesse required to make this sort of album work, and Cox has never had it. I understand why - Cox has stream-of-conscience lyrics, so I guess we're all supposed to be lucky they make sense at all - but unlike most critics, I'm not going to buy into it, particularly considering the lyrics have consistently been the weakest part of Deerhunter's entire discography (with the exception of every song written by Lockett Pundt, who is a consistently decent songwriter and part of the reason Halcyon Days was so good). And the more I think about it, the reasons that the songs I like on this album work are all the more evidence of instrumental strength carrying the album over mediocre lyrics - which could otherwise be rewritten as Deerhunter's tagline.

Yet with all of that being said, I can't say that I condemn this album outright. Art that fails due to overambition is better in my opinion than art that doesn't even try, and I do appreciate the fact that Cox is actually starting to talk about something other than himself. I'll admit that I'll never be a big Deerhunter fan, but I guess I can recommend Monomania for the moments that do work, because there are a genuine few.

And Bradford Cox, I have one bit of advice for you: write your lyrics down.

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