Sometimes, successful art is borne of tragedy and adversity. Sometimes, it is a matter of happenstance. Sometimes the greatest pieces of art are created quickly and spontaneously, and sometimes, they require years of reflection and meditation.
Deerhunter’s latest album Cryptograms is an odd combination of all of the above—which may explain why, despite its moments of brilliance, it never quite works as an album. What Cryptograms does do, however, is legitimize Deerhunter to a critical populace that probably never would have embraced a band that used sexual orientation-based slurs in its album titles or penis collages serving as its artwork. As it turns out, Deerhunter has skills that transcend the cheap shock value of such tactics, its members proving themselves equally adept at ambient, looped strums as they are at pleasing-if-barely-in-tune jangle pop.
The story behind Cryptograms is one that’s bound to be repeated and driven into the ground at least until such time as Deerhunter releases its next album. Here’s the summary: Cryptograms’ first half is the second take of a one-day recording session that the band tried to accomplish shortly after its original bass player tragically died, finding that a little time to heal the wounds resulted in a much better one day stint later on, a session that turned into the first seven tracks on Cryptograms. The latter half of the album is a set of songs that resulted from far less tragic circumstances, but still laid to tape in another single-day whirlwind. That’s the story. Kind of makes you want to root for them, doesn’t it?
Perhaps it’s a result of that rooting interest, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the first half of Cryptograms is its most exhilarating. Only two of those first seven tracks are “songs” in the way one normally thinks of “songs”, things with guitars and drums and words and verses and discernable rhythms, and even those songs sound as though they’re ready to fall apart at the seams at any time, never totally in sync, always on the verge of imploding in a maelstrom of sound and fury, though never actually falling into the trap of doing just that. The title track centers on lead vocalist Bradford Cox detailing his greatest fears and regrets, ultimately getting stuck on the phrase “There was no sound”, the vocals approximating a record in a locked groove even as the instruments around them get louder and more chaotic with every repetition. “Lake Somerset” is just as noteworthy, conveying a dark dread as aptly as “Cryptograms” did confusion and fear, contrasting creepy quiet with explosive noise and magnifying both moods in the process. Surrounding those particular statements with the ambient (if a bit long-winded) workouts of songs like “White Ink” and the nearly eight-minute “Octet” only magnifies their impact, providing formless context to the Elmer’s glue ‘n duct tape structures of the proper songs.
It’s the lack of such experiments that likely dooms the latter half, as we are forced to fixate on examples of Deerhunter’s songcraft, which is actually somewhat average—there’s a good energy to songs like “Strange Lights” and “Hazel St.”, but there are also multitracked vocals that aren’t quite in tune with each other. There are a few catchy melodies to be found, but there’s also too much use of delay, masking whatever deficiencies in musicianship Deerhunter might choose to hide. For four songs and one woefully short instrumental, Deerhunter sound like Average Indie Band, a tragically dismissive designation for a band that flashes the sort of potential that the first half of the album holds.
It would appear, then, that in Deerhunter’s case, spontaneity triumphs over calculation, that the inspiration of tragedy triumphs over the inspiration of simply wanting to be a good band. At least, that’s the conclusion we are to draw from Cryptograms, an album as ultimately disappointing as it is initially thrilling—still, as an indicator of potential, Cryptograms holds a lot of hope for the future, a future in which the fine young men of Deerhunter would do well to listen to their more experimental inclinations.