When Deerhunter, the restrictively self-described purveyors of “Ambient-punk” from Atlanta released their second LP, 2007’s Cryptograms, it was much admired and feted by a majority of the taste-making media.
While it was no average descendant of its ancestral genres—all Kevin Shields/ Brian Eno flesh flapping loosely off a Joy Division skeleton—the luxurious Deerhunter hide was only revealed in flashes, too often obscured by the fuzz-laden wilderness it stumbled through.
Perhaps the critical populace was blindsided by the tales behind the birth of Cryptograms—the death of a band-member, main-man Bradford Cox’s health issues—that they found it difficult to separate the environment that birthed the record from its contents. After all, Cox’s morbid ruminations and pansexual allusions are very much symptomatic of their struggles, making it difficult not to give Deerhunter the benefit of the doubt.
A year-and-a-half has passed since then, allowing the distractions that came with Cryptograms to disperse. With only the Fluorescent Grey EP and Bradford Cox’s Atlas Sound side project registering in the Deerhunter enthusiast’s retina, we can better consider the latest release, Microcastle, on purely musical terms.
The record opens with an entrée. “Cover Me (slowly)” acts as a shimmering bridge extending from the murky depths of Cryptograms and out to brighter new territory. By the time the second track (first proper song) begins, the skies clear and the suffocating atmospherics of the last record disappear, allowing warm light to shine throughout the twelve subsequent tracks.
Deerhunter have not altogether abandoned their effects pedals in Cryptogram-land. A distant banshee monotone hovers above the chorus of “Never stops”, and “Little kids” ends with indolent waves of distortion breaking softly on a deserted beach. The difference is that the effects are used prudently, unlike the last effort where everything was doused in unctuous noise.
Bradford Cox’s other signature—the references to his various neuroses and obsessions—also returns on Microcastle. “Agoraphobia” may, on first listen, seem to deal with the titular fear of open spaces. “I have a dream, no longer to be free / I want only to see, four walls made of concrete / Six-by-six enclosed, see me on video”, Cox intones as the instrumentation proceeds in positively sunny style. However, on further inspection it reveals itself to be a confession of Cox’s discomfort with fame.
The only qualm one might have with this collection of tunes come from the three tracks that add a sluggish paunch to its midsection. “Cavalry Scars”, “Green Jacket”, and “Activa” have interesting embellishments like tinkling wind-chimes and plonking piano lines, but with Cox’s almost-whispered enunciation and song-writing that never really wanders to any height or depth, they fail to really capture one’s attention. This lull does, however, set up the next overture rather tastefully. “Nothing Ever Happened” is a ripping song that begins with propulsive drumming, winding guitars, and a bittersweet chorus (“Nothing ever happened to me / Life just passed and flashed right through me”), and climaxes in a pulsating extended jam with writhing layers of guitar twisting around each other like amorous snakes.
Another sparkling highlight is the closer “Twilight at Carbon Lake”, which begins with a guitar motif reminiscent of “Unchained Melody” and gathers momentum until it reaches a precipice and plunges towards the end in a hail of distortion, thundering cymbal clashes, and wheezing electronics.
Microcastle is a fortress of many skyward spires, built on a foundation of tuneful pop-sensibility and florid sonics that holds many unanticipated riches within its walls. By discarding the hazy ambience of Cryptograms and revealing their winsome heart, Deerhunter have rewarded those who applauded their bravery and may even convince the doubters that they are as significant an act as their fans have faithfully prognosticated.