THE UNDERDOGS: Deerhunter’s ‘Monomania’

A column about underrated albums that didn’t get their due.

I’ve previously shared my full-hearted admiration for Deerhunter’s 2010 album Halcyon Digest (twice). It’s a classic, but as with any great band with an extensive discography (Deerhunter’s at eight), some otherwise exceptional albums fall out of the conversation.

Such is the case with Monomania. Released in 2013 as the follow-up to Halcyon, the album is manic and abrasive. Songs like “Leather Jacket II” are swimming in garage-rock squall and unsettling melodies. The emotional tributes we heard previously are replaced by character studies that offer no consolation. Lovers are lost (“Pensacola,” “Back to the Middle”) and lives are scrutinized to the point of self-loathing (“Punk (La Vie Antérieure)”).

The title Monomania is a reference to bandleader Bradford Cox’s obsessive personality. He’s admitted the album wasn’t a pleasant one to make. Sure, we saw the return of producer Nicolas Vernhes, but we also saw the loss of bassist Joshua Fauver. Nevertheless, in 2015, Cox stated that he was proud of how Monomania accomplishes what he sought out to do.

In this context, the album feels cathartic. “Dream Captain” sounds desperate one moment, and tongue-in-cheek the next. The sinister “T.H.M.” is lightened by a bass groove. Cox still tells his dark, firsthand tales of childhood trauma and queerness (“Dream Captain,” “Nitebike”), but free from the pressure of a mission statement. Each song is allowed to evoke something different and the album is all the more rewarding for it.

Musically, the band branched out into the more identifiable realms of rock. The southern rock-inspired “Pensacola” could pass as a Drive-By Truckers track. “Sleepwalking” could be easily mistaken for an excellent 2010-era Strokes song. The strumming that drives “Punk (La Vie Antérieure)” calls back to Microphones-era Phil Elverum.

For music fans, it’s enjoyable to hear a band’s evolution, relish their classics, and appreciate their left turns. Play a few tracks of Monomania to a casual Deerhunter fan. They may be surprised at what they hear, sure, but hopefully they’ll agree that the album was a mission accomplished.