Mike Rugnetta (a brilliant mind over at the PBS “Idea Channel”) jokingly coined the term “modus hipsterondi” to describe the process of ironically, even mockingly adopting cultural artifacts (mustaches, hip-hop) at random to project the notion that you, the adopter, are above it all. This is the opposite of what Vampire Weekend does. When they confront cultural artifacts like Paul Simon’s style, oddball hip-hop references, or in this case, literary biblical language, they do so earnestly, and without pretense. When they employ the same chord progression, the same thoughtful whimsy, and the same instrumentation they’ve used for three albums now, it’s actually quite wonderful. They never pretended to be the zeitgeist of the ever-changing landscape of the hip; they are just some rich kids from New York who write thoughtful pop music in a form that works very, very well. In “Ya Hey,” frontman Ezra Koenig confronts Judeo-Christian religion, quoting the Bible directly, and referencing a number of Old Testament passages. It’s not cheap at all: it’s actually somewhat challenging. He’s caught somewhere between the Zionists, the Babylonians, the Americans, the Motherland, the Fatherland, the faithless, and the zealous, unsure where he fits into the ongoing narrative of Old Testament and it’s place in today’s society. He pleads with God, “Why love anything?” And what’s more is that Koenig and the boys are able to accomplish such a feat without abandoning their form.
When Bradford Cox started talking about the songs that would eventually comprise Deerhunter’s forthcoming LP, Monomania, he talked about American roots music—“blues hollers, spiritualists.” He mentioned a lack of effects pedals and reverb and called his songs “field recordings.”
What he gives us on Monomania is nothing more or less than that, and those expecting the tight composition of its wunderkind predecessor, Halcyon Digest, will be disappointed. That album was by far the band’s most cohesive work; it was pristine, high fidelity, and accessible even at its artsiest or most punk moments. Monomania is more akin to Bradford Cox’s prolific online output as Atlas Sound, some of which was packaged together in 2010 in the three-volume Bedroom Databank. For those songs, Cox more or less hit the record button on his four-track and never took a second look. It was a necessary release valve for Cox’s free-flowing musical ideas, much of it promising but not always fully conceived. It’s reported that Cox wrote literally hundreds of songs for Monomania, eventually whittling them down to 12. Knowing that makes Monomania feel almost pick-and-choose. The album could just as easily have been 12 different songs.
That’s not to suggest the 12 songs he did choose aren’t absolutely flooring. Opener “Neon Junkyard” putters to life like the beginning of a lazy practice session before taking shape as a slow-burning fuzz-folk ballad. It rambles into “Leather Jacket II,” continuing the scuzzy noise-punk with distorted guitar work and Cox’s mic-swallowing croon. In contrast, the Lockett Pundt-penned “The Missing” sounds crystalline; its pretty melodics and pop sense serve as a welcome breather before plunging into the airless, bluesy do-re-mi of “Pensacola.” That song, more than any other, fits the profile of Cox’s touted “American roots” influences, as he sings: “I came from the delta down to the plains.” It sounds Deep South, a subtle reminder that Cox did, after all, grow up in Georgia. The album’s middle stretch takes us through familiar territory: “Dream Captain” and “Blue Agent” draw from pre-punk punk, a la Syd Barrett or The Velvet Underground; “Sleepwalking” opens up Monomania’s claustrophobic production somewhat with reverbed guitar and shoegazy atmospherics; “Back to the Middle” sounds like a Strokes song turned on its head.
Which brings us to “Monomania.” The title track is as pure punk rock as they come, with a chord progression and axe riffs that would make Ty Segall jealous. The song builds to an excruciating peak, flaring out in a merciless assault of screeches, growls, and the rumbling snarl of a literal engine that turns its listeners into victims. It’s impressive enough on tape; live, the song is downright consuming.
The album’s title refers to a mental disorder marked by an obsession with a single object or thought. Cox has said he was obsessed with neon lights during the writing of Monomania, which subsequently inspired the album’s title and cover art. It turns out Cox first started talking about neon lights back in 2011. Speaking of punk rocker Jay Reatard and the impact his death had on the making of Halcyon Digest, Cox said: “He’s all over that album, and a lot of it was anger, so much anger. We share that anger. Punk. It manifests itself in many ways, and for him it was just there like a neon strobe light.”
In a way, Cox’s monomania for neon lights is another expression of his obsession with punk music, which, in Cox’s world, represents music in its purest form. For Cox, the correlation between oneself and one’s music should be instantaneous, unfiltered. This would explain why Cox’s musical output is so tireless; where other artists might start on an idea and constantly rework it or scrap it altogether, Cox leaves it, unaltered, in plain sight. That’s the nature of field recordings: record what you hear and present it as you find it. In this sense, Monomania is more a documentary than a carefully plotted film. The result can be disorienting at times, and Monomania is full of moments that seem unintentional. But that’s nothing new for Deerhunter; Halcyon Digest, for all its careful arrangement, ended by cutting off the last song, “He Would Have Laughed,” basically mid-measure. As it happens, that song was written in memory of Jay Reatard, and what Reatard represented—immediacy, purity, punk—is what Monomania strives for. By that score, Monomania is a flawless record. By any other score, it’s damn good.
“5am in Toronto” is an insatiable rap song, and “Girls Love Beyoncé” is an insatiable R&B jam. Being able to execute both genres with such intuition is what puts Drake consistently and effortlessly at the top of his game. “Girls Love Beyoncé” repurposes Destiny’s Child’s infamous “Say My Name,” flowing along on some warm-toned soul vocals and a deep, soft synth drone spread like honey over a patient beat. “I need someone that’ll help me think of someone besides myself,” Drake intones in his smooth, nasally tenor, expressing his desire for monogamy in a culture where “All my young boys ‘round me sayin’ ‘get money and f*** these hoes.’” Drake’s conscience is known for being pricked by something like old-fashioned values, and Beyoncé here serves as a symbol of the committed relationship. By extension, she’s also a manifestation of Drake’s inability to maintain such a relationship, and a voodoo doll for the girls who “love to f*** with your conscience.” “Girls Love Beyoncé” is a syrupy, understated complement to “5am in Toronto,” less hard-hitting but no less spectacular and ear-worming in its own right.
“Anything You Want” appears in the middle of Spoon’s third album, Girls Can Tell, a crucial juncture in Spoon’s career. Released in 2001, Girls Can Tell came on the heels of A Series of Sneaks, their major-label debut that fared poorly on the Billboard charts and eventually led to the band being dropped from Elektra’s lineup. Merge took them in and Spoon’s sound immediately changed—or rather, clarified. Britt Daniel’s punk sneer transformed into a controlled croon, aggressiveness was exchanged for nuance, and sprawling guitar work was trimmed and palm-muted into sparser, hookier packets. And piano was added, serving sometimes for atmosphere and other times as bass. The aftertaste of the album as a whole changed, too. A Series of Sneaks tended to wander or bleed into itself indistinctly, while Girls Can Tell was more of a defining statement, a consequence of concision and self-editing. The result was songs like “Anything You Want”—short, sweet art-rock ballads arranged with pinpoint production that highlighted Spoon’s best latent attributes—Daniel’s bruised vocal delivery, his knack for melodic counterpoint, Rob Pope’s tasteful keyboard—and turned them into what Elektra couldn’t: a marketable critical success. Daniel sings, “You’re at your best when you’ve got the guns turned a hundred and eighty degrees / And finding out if it adds all up right.” “Anything You Want” was the sound of Spoon becoming thoughtful, even brutal, self-examiners, the first hint that they would become the most consistently great modern rock band of the 2000s.