Written by Jon Hegglund
One of the best moments for a music fan is hearing potential realized, and a first listen of Deerhunter‘s Microcastle yields exactly this kind of revelation. The tangled, messy neo-psychedelia of 2006’s Cryptograms was an achievement in its own right, a record whose best moments came when coherent, powerful songs seemed to emerge, almost accidentally, from a dark carnival of dissonant sound. One listen to Microcastle, though, is evidence enough that Bradford Cox and his Atlanta mates have moved onward and upward with a startling clarity and focus.
This doesn’t take long to figure out. The opening seconds of the instrumental opener, “Cover Me Slowly,” trade in the reverb-drenched chaos of Cryptograms for a rock-operatic instrumental that segues seamlessly into the catchy, mid-tempo “Agoraphobia.” Guitarist Lockett Pundt enters with a perfectly articulated vocal hook—Cover me, comfort me—while the band backs up with such a precise, restrained arrangement that you can’t help but wonder if a studio perfectionist like Nigel Godrich accidentally wandered in from the Beck session next door.
The fear here would be that the cleaned-up Deerhunter sacrifices the swampy anarchy of Cryptograms for a mannered, soulless affair, or that Cox’s songs can’t stand up to the pristine production. In fact, Cox’s songwriting sophistication has grown considerably since Cryptograms, a development promised both by Deerhunter’s Fluorescent Grey EP and Cox’s own Atlas Sound side project. Cox seems less afraid of a pop hook than before, but he and his mates also understand how to give the songs more space. The title track features a phase-shifted Cox crooning over a solo guitar for about two minutes, until the band comes in with about a minute of buzzsaw pop that The Strokes would sacrifice a couple of supermodels for. “Nothing Ever Happened” begins with a pounding Krautrock bass-and-drum intro before the song passes through Byrdsy psychedelic pop on its way to a sparkling Eno-esque climax. Songs like these fulfill the promise of the album title, as they seem almost architectural in their detail, design, and spaciousness.
In light of Cox’s own physical and emotional difficulties—and Cox is usually the first to speak about these, including the Marfan syndrome that gives him such a skeletal, wraith-like appearance—the album feels less like torture and more like therapy. Cox confronts his own problems head on in tracks like “Agoraphobia” and “Saved by Old Times,” but with honesty rather than self-indulgent dramatics. He’s at a place where he can pen a pop masterpiece like “Never Stops” but still go to the dark side for the album closer, “Twilight at Carbon Lake.” In what begins like an alien retransmission of a radio broadcasting pop hits from the 50s (The Everly Brothers meet the X-Files?), Cox relates an oblique tale of self-doubt and suicidal thoughts that builds from a simple guitar figure to a noisy squall of sound, then just as quickly ceases.
Like much of Mircocastle, the song builds a well-crafted musical structure around dark emotions, sacrificing none of the music’s power but trimming off much of the excess that plagued previous releases. It’s a stunner of an album—original, bracing, thoughtful, and compulsively listenable. Here’s hoping that Cox can stay healthy enough—physically and otherwise—to continue exploring the vistas opened up by Microcastle.
Kranky [CD, 2008]