The indie rock male has solidified somewhat over the past ten years, as the small world’s aesthetic has merged with the mainstream. To outsiders, the strangely singular sounds of the culture can be described as simply as what a particularly reductive friend of mine likes to call “a guy singing inside a box”. The very distinctive male indie rock singing of today, both highly affected and highly emotive, can be traced as far back as the teary-eyed, yelpy vocals of the Arcade Fire’s Win Butler. The technique served to make the music sound distant, as if it has passed through something thick before it has gotten to your ears, an effect that can heighten the emotional power of good songwriting by making the listener pay even closer attention. The years have only served to slowly squeeze the juice out of this sound by using it in a wider swath of music than it can handle, from the Mountain Goat’s topical, acoustic solo fare, to Grizzly Bear’s extravagant choral arrangements, and to Mumford and Son’s stomping banjo ballads. The “guy singing inside a box” can be problematically difficult to incorporate into expansive music and its inclusion has long been the honored test of a new indie rocker’s salt.
Deerhunter’s 2008 album Microcastle, along with its companion EP Weird Era Cont., stood out because it managed to take the singular sound of distant voices through static and managed to surround it with a long and various, yet tightly wound album. Bradford Cox and company did so by adding distinctive songwriting to an effect-heavy sound. The songs were heavily percussive in a non-syncopated manner reminiscent of famous rock mannerists like Television and Talking Heads, yet often switched between an ambient calm reminiscent of breezy fall days and distinctly unmannered bursts of sound. In an era when the LP was constantly declared either expired or close to it, Deerhunter made an album that could really only be enjoyed as such. Their follow-up, Halcyon Digest, withered slightly in comparison because it attempted to translate the broad sound of Microcastle to a lighter, catchier, more song-oriented sound. It produced quite a few gems, but ultimately the album was a flash in the pan, failing to come together into a cohesive set of tracks.
In the future, Monomania might be seen as the “minor” Deerhunter album, but don’t let its slight appearance or strong learning curve keep you from enjoying it. The band has altogether abandoned their broad sound for a highly claustrophobic album, full of small riffs and tight melodies. Lo-fi means what you expect this time around: “Nitebike” is heavily reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen’s proto-bedroom album Nebraska and song’s like “Pensacola” and “Monomania” sound like the heavier side of Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted. Dragged through this hall of classics is Deerhunter’s long and heavy chain of eccentricities: characteristically ugly distortion, long segments of obtuse ambiance, thumping, repetitive breakdowns and the same small turns of melody that you will recognize from their last two albums. It is really this limited stylistic palette, and not its relatively small and derivative sound, if anything, that holds this album back amongst its peers in the band’s catalog. The band’s book of songwriting has, it seems, run its course, and thus the album’s contours sag with age and slow a listener’s usually breakneck experience with the band. For those who remember the confident movements of Microcastle, Monomania will be an entertaining, but ultimately nostalgic, rather than refreshing, garage rock pastiche.