Photo: Kranky

The Wondrous Weirdness of Deerhunter’s ‘Weird Era Cont.’

Deerhunter’s Weird Era Cont., the companion to Microcastle, lives in its shadow and yet eclipses it with a bizarre brilliance all its own.

Weird Era Cont.
Kranky / 4AD
28 October 2008

The period around 2007-2008 was an exciting era in pop music history for discerning fans. That was when Atlanta’s Deerhunter broke into wider consciousness among such fans, and they were beginning to solidify its overall popularity. While new bands were cropping up all the time, the sounds emanating from those musicians often seemed blandly stagnant. Yes, earlier in the 2000s, there had been the post-punk and garage punk revivals with bands like Interpol, the Strokes, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. But while invigorating in their own way, those groups were somewhat derivative. They offered interesting, updated takes on classic sounds and diverged in some new-ish directions, but nothing astoundingly novel emerged from that clutch of artists. 

Enter Deerhunter, whose scintillating strains encompassed a confluence of influences that rendered its musical persona a fascinating counterpoint to the pabulum being offered up in the guise of modern alternative music. Deerhunter’s transcendent Southern surrealism would swirl together Brian Eno-esque psychedelia with dollops of doo-wop and heavy doses of shoegaze, punk, garage rock, Krautrock, and folk.

Indeed, at one time early in their career trajectory, Deerhunter called themselves “the first surrealist punk band”. That moniker was probably most accurate on releases such as their debut (crudely referred to as Turn It Up Faggot by lead crooner and provocateur Bradford Cox) and sophomore effort Cryptograms. But it could also be aptly applied to Weird Era Cont., the group’s fourth album, released in 2008, concurrently with Microcastle, a more purely ambient offering.

Weird Era Cont. is true to its name in many ways. Not only did Deerhunter swiftly record it in response to a premature leak of Microcastle (an offbeat tactic to reward their more patient adherents), but its contents are mildly bizarre in that inimitably Deerhunterian way. It was a seamless continuation (“Cont.”) of the era before, in which Deerhunter’s mutant melodies had resonated with fans starved for something off-kilter yet genuinely realized.

Guitarist Lockett Pundt, the more level-headed yin to Bradford Cox’s decidedly feisty yang, was quoted in as saying the band wanted Weird Era Cont. to sound “old and haunted”, and indeed, it does. The album’s vintage vibe harbors a spooky subtext. Not only does it sound like it was recorded in the 1960s, with scratchy lo-fi aesthetics and muted vocals that feel distant and yearning (check out “Vox Humana” and “Focus Group”, among others), but its retro-futurism feels disconcertingly nostalgic, offering a portal to a time that never actually existed, yet that feels incongruously familiar, like a cryptic dream.

Deerhunter tropes such as swirling sounds in a repetitive loop to generate a trance-like feeling (“Vox Celeste”, “VHS Dream”, and others), playing improvised quasi-jazz (“Cicadas”), and toying with trippy instrumentals (“Ghost Outfit”, “Slow Swords”, “Weird Era”, “Moon Cartridge”) are all in full, thrilling display on Weird Era Cont. Of course, Deerhunter save the best for last: a progressive rock-length coda that builds wispily before boisterously bursting into supernatural guitar melodies (“Calvary Scars LI/Aux Out”).

Deerhunter have always had a beguiling sound that can be at turns mystical, hallucinogenic, hypnotic, kaleidoscopic, and also introverted and impenetrable. When they released Monomania in 2012, a minor earthquake among some fans erupted because the spacey ambience that had largely characterized the band’s most favored releases was scrubbed away by a harsh dissonance, a sound shaped by a rough and rowdy garage rock ethos. 

But Monomania also continued the tradition of avant-garde experimentation that Deerhunter are beloved for. While many fans consider Halcyon Digest, Monomania’s predecessor, as their peak, in reality, all it does is add some spit and polish to the ambient offerings of yore. It’s a great album, but …

In other words, Monomania is a much more challenging effort than Halcyon Digest. While almost antithetical in sound to the otherworldly ethereality of Weird Era Cont., it’s a close cousin to it because it takes risks and pushes the group forward. While all Deerhunter albums are sacred in their own way, Monomania is perhaps their best album since Weird Era Cont. because it was not afraid to alienate those critics and fans who pigeonholed them in provincial fashion.

Fearlessly defying, well, fear, is really Deerhunter’s signature gesture. Known for his erratic performance antics, Bradford Cox’s stage persona has sometimes overshadowed his music. This is a guy who, in 2013, got on the most mainstream of all the talk shows, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, and with a shaggy wig, smeared lipstick, and busted finger, performed an Iggy Pop-inspired version of “Monomania” before throwing down the microphone and sullenly slinking offstage and into the hallways toward the elevator, casually snatching someone’s drink along the way. The whole thing was clearly planned, as the camera smoothly followed his moves, but it still betrayed an odd sense of self-consciousness.

Another infamous and arguably less endearing moment was in Minnesota in 2012, with his side project Atlas Sound. In a snarky response to a repeated fan taunt to “play My Sharona”, Cox taunted right back and played the track for an hour straight, causing an exodus of fans. Granted, Bradford and his band improvised and made the song more interesting. But judging from comments on Reddit and in article comment forums, opinion is split as to whether this “stunt” was justified, with some calling it “art” and others disparaging it as a juvenile tantrum, punishing an entire audience for one kid’s heckling.

So it seems that maybe Bradford Cox is your proverbial tortured genius, and also massively insecure about fame –  and yet also plagued with hubris. So it goes with true artists; it seems that paradoxes abound.

One thing is for sure: Angsty antics aside, Cox has been ridiculously prolific over the years, providing further fodder to the pervasive idea among fans and critics that music is the fuel he runs on. In addition to his aforementioned side project, Atlas Sound, and in between his band’s proper releases, there have been EPs and hordes of rarities, internet-only releases, and at least one concert-only release (Double Dream of Spring, which sold out instantly but can be found as a rip on the internet). Unfortunately, the pandemic has slowed Deerhunter’s output, and the band’s most recent song was in 2019, a proggy internet-only tune (the mind-and-time bending “Time Bends”). 

Time will tell where a post-pandemic Deerhunter will land, but one hopes it’s squarely in the center of continuing the weird era stuff. After all, while one cannot deny the towering greatness of Microcastle, especially its stunning centerpiece, “Nothing Ever Happens”, Weird Era Cont. ultimately eclipses Microcastle. Even though Microcastle is deemed the more “proper” 2008 Deerhunter release and took longer to create, Weird Era Cont. proves that Deerhunter doesn’t need a polished aesthetic to be brilliant: the album was dashed off in two weeks and not only feels fresher than ever but feels as though it’s unfolding in real time, and yet in a disparate temporal dimension. As Chris Deville of Stereogum says: “…If they released it today, it’d be widely hailed as Deerhunter’s return to form.”  

It’s true: The quaintly anachronistic Weird Era Cont. is less streamlined and straightforward than Microcastle – hell, less streamlined and straightforward than just about ALL Deerhunter albums – but it’s therefore more pleasingly discombobulating: a set of songs that embody the best – and weirdest – of what Deerhunter has to offer.