There are two songwriters on Monomania. Both of them are us. We’ll get into that later.
First: how does music move over time? Deerhunter taught me it doesn’t happen in an instant. I certainly don’t believe in musical moments anymore. I don’t think a break-up album can pick someone up in and of itself, and I don’t think I can look up at a skyline and attach a certain song to it forever. Songs don’t hit me like a freight train. I don’t have musical reflexes to talk of, not even in a live space where everything happens before my eyes. When I tell someone how much I lost it during Japandroids, I’m talking about what’s been built in, like writing chapters in a slowly unveiling story. First I had to like them, then love them, then wonder about them. The first time I saw Japandroids I was disaffected from them, but seeing them again was another chapter, a corrective to a red herring I’d all but forgotten about. I’d never talk about that first gig in its instant, but it’s one I’ll happily write about in the shadow of Japandroids’ final chapter. It was not then and there that it happened, and I don’t get to pick my own adventure. I don’t wait for songs to fill me in.
Having music in a moment doesn’t tell the clingy, neurotic story it deserves. It’s more about muscle memory and how we find ourselves in a place where we can’t dictate feeling. I remember my brother buying me Room on Fire for my 10th birthday (an inappropriate choice of the most high), but what really sticks out for me is the provisional states the Strokes went through in my developing musical mind. At 20, I’m still walking and talking an album that I had to press down on a sloppy, broken Walkman to listen to. Those songs moved over time rather than exist in that whirring moment I now recognize as, well, not ideal. What trying to fix a CD player taught me was all the better. I needed music, and I may not have known it then, but Room on Fire was training me to see forever.
In that way, Bradford Cox is me. He is a revivalist only because the moment never left him. Now rock music is probably dead – by which I mean ill-defined – he has something to defend, and has willed it back to life in his own choice of color and shape. He has made an album for his favorite genre as it teeters between supposed life and death. Screw the wake, Monomania says, because muscle memory never goes away, and like that, our favorite genres never die. It’s worse than an inconvenient itch, this music thing. It’s an illness.
Monomania is the result of addiction, so Cox has said; where his bandmates can find the proper antidote outside of a song, he feels like he still relies on punk music, or just on music, to satiate him. For him music is one overlong moment, a lifetime, if you want to give it an instantaneous timeframe. On “Pensacola”, a track as deceptive as anything on this record – able to sound like an adventure and then cruelly reveal its own red herrings about heartbreak – he tells us what necessitates him. “Take me on a trip, man, I’ll never get sick.” Monomania is another treatment, but on “Pensacola”, Cox comes close to saying fuck, this doesn’t solve a thing.
Cox billed this album as “avant-garde”, and at first I couldn’t tell if he was playing coy or being serious, whether this was just another description that fit his need to walk and talk music, to belong to his canon and then reroute it. The album only reasserted my questions. It’s not particularly challenging, and it doesn’t shed the skin of old rock prototypes. Instead of transcend, which is a totally Weird Era Cont. thing to do, Monomania is “avant-garde” in a simpler way, acting meta to rock collection, pooling resources and then declaring them. In Cox’s vision exists this album of much rock rather than weird rock. It’s half as strange as anything Deerhunter or Atlas Sound has made before, but twice as reflective of, well, music. The last track is called “Punk” and mischievously isn’t a punk song. This is music talking about itself.
This is the rock album of the future, the one Cox wants to hear, but he recognizes how disturbing it is to be making it. Being “punk for a month” solves so little; doing a country rock jaunt is ineffectual. The title track, “Monomania”, is symptomatic of Cox’s need to feed the record back into itself, and to realize that while this is the music he wants to hear, it’s also dangerous to be wanting at all. It’s an abrasive, straight up punk song, one that retains the wrath of “Cryptograms” but removes any delicacies.
It sounds the way Deerhunter were before they smoothed out the edges and grew chill, but it’s uninterested in the experiments that might come with that territory. The only noise experiment is the sound of a motorbike revving as the song fades out, and it sounds as if it’s been placed and chained to make the nose noise without the movement. They go hand in hand, but Cox doesn’t think so. He forgets about the journey. Such is “Monomania” – it stands still at its crux, Cox letting his crisp growl of “Mono mono mania!” exist forever. This is Cox saying, without hiding behind an interview, finally reunited with the music he’s talking about, “I need punk music.”
In this way, Monomania is a tragic kind of meta. Its freewheeling spirit is dominated by an undercurrent of unhappy analysis. On “Dream Captain”, Cox screams “I’m a poor boy from a poor family!” like he’s expelling the fact from his body. The song moves from the stealthy guitar lines of its verses to a dark chorus centered on an intrusive percussive line of fire. Monomania keeps making itself explicit, its groove constantly checked by reality. “Sleepwalking”, a potential single that will inevitably be compared to a quickly thrown out, four-chord Strokes standard, ends with no sense of that pop singularity. It sounds composite of Cox’s rockish over-thinking, its bridge building to dead-end questions like “can’t you see we’ve grown apart now?” These questions are followed on their heels by “Back to the Middle”, another Strokes-y song that acts assured in Cox’s said over-thinking. Nothing gets resolved; everything gets posed.
These songs are defeating in their way. Cox doesn’t look for shelter in his songs. He just keeps using them, and that’s as far as treatment goes. His celebratory “woo!” on “Pensacola” is a bittersweet exhale because it’s followed by the facts, that “nothing ever works out quite like you had planned”. Monomania is a comfort zone, but it’s also a place to feel displaced and numbed.
Then, of course, there’s the second songwriter. Cox sings and likely fronts 11 of these songs; Lockett Pundt has one, “The Missing”. There’s a reason these two friends work so well together, and why one of them is reduced to play side-kick where the other gets amplified. Both are essential rules. Pundt is the quieter type of shy, clinging to rock less and still searching for a real source of comfort. And so “The Missing” sounds a little outside of Monomania’s cage. It’s different from the album, but not in a jarring way, reminiscent instead of the kind of leak-fixing Pundt does with Lotus Plaza. (It’s telling that he debuted the song live under the name of his solo project.)
Pundt is the real antidote to Monomania. Deerhunter have always felt sickness, but Pundt is there to seek healing. On “Agoraphobia”, he was directive. “Cover me, come for me”, he sang, looking for someone to close the walls in. On Halcyon Digest his plea was an inviting one: “come with me.” On “The Missing”, he continues to focus on the one that could help him, his cozier, more watery indie rock style circling pleas almost rhetorical, the important thing that someone hears them. “If you don’t mind, could you shelter me?” he asks. Pundt’s song is comforting for this reason: on an album of rock songs that are much needed, in a very real sense, it gives way to a force that could actually be the topic of one.
Pundt asks for help, but it’s him that soothes Monomania. He, too, is us, when we’re able to lower our focus and realize our obsessions are nothing without something behind them. Cox empties his rock worship into Monomania, but even if he puts decades of musical entrenchment into it and treats it like labor, he has to question it when it doesn’t seem like enough. Pundt, instead, describes scenes presently, and more often than that, asks someone else to describe them. Cox self-proclaims himself, tags “punk” and “queer” to himself and realizes they aren’t forever, but Pundt seeks music that can gratify us now. I don’t know which one of them gets it right, but I know that Monomania is another chapter of Deerhunter’s rock story. Cox will always need his chapters, cling to them, and proclaim a canon to hide inside. He reminds me of Room on Fire, ten years on, and gives me hope that this is forever.