Nearly three years after Halcyon Digest delivered crowd-pleasing permutations of Deerhunter's sound with such songs as "Helicopter," "Revival," and "Desire Lines," the group remains one of the dicier acts on the leading edge of American art rock. Although the group came into its own as an outsider amid Atlanta's garage/punk boon of the early to mid-aughts, Deerhunter's penchant for crafting singularly noisy and melodic avant-garde rock has been its defining trait from the very beginning. With its fifth album, Monomania (4AD), the group stays true to that vision while hammering out a dark and tangled collection of songs that are rich with both intimacy and urgency — a slapdash masterpiece that makes Halcyon Digest feel tame by comparison.
With this new album comes a few changes in the group's lineup: First and foremost, bass player Josh Fauver has left Deerhunter, and in his stead Josh McKay of Athens bands Macha and Abandon the Earth Mission has taken on bass duties. Ex-Balkans singer/guitarist Frankie Broyles has joined the group as well, and with the change, Bradford Cox has put down his guitar some to focus more of his attention on embracing the role of a proper frontman; although the guitar sounds and song structure heard throughout the record remain purely, and distinctively, Deerhunter creations.
Despite the shifting in personnel, the group seems to be no worse for wear, and Monomania's strengths lie in the undulating rhythms of disarming tension and empowered catharsis that unfold from song to song.
Opening up with "Neon Junkyard," the album ascends with a wistfully reflective pop crawl. But just when a deceptively comfortable pattern begins to establish itself, "Leather Jacket II" takes hold, setting the tone for the album with a rich and calamitous atmosphere. "The Missing" marks a return to the hazy pop nostalgia that guitarist Lockett Pundt brought to Halcyon Digest via "Desire Lines," and "Pensacola" ambles along with a defiantly sleazy country-garage rock pace. It's a rollicking number that feels a bit out of place here. Though it's not exactly a comedic number, there is clearly a bit of self-effacing blues humor on display as the song twists the conventions that Deerhunter's albums have established, and it provides a momentary sense of relief before the tumult that's about to unfold.
Naturally, Monomania wouldn't be a classic Deerhunter album if it weren't for these alternating serene and unsettling moments. But here, they're coupled with lyrical themes that evoke abstract feelings of crushing disappointment, wrapped in the simple and absolutely infectious melodies of "Dream Captain" and "Blue Agent."
Equally jarring is the jump from the window-rattling noise climax of "Monomania" into a chain of propulsive pop melodies on "Back to the Middle" and "Sleepwalking" that finally settles the tone with "T.H.M." Here, the group delivers a clean and unpredictably quiet number that's free from any audible effects. The song's quietude transmits that emotional transcendence has emerged from the din. The song unfolds with an arrogant sense of emotional liberation, which underscores some of the most captivating songwriting here.
The album turns down a much darker path as the title track unfolds. "Monomania" is a lashing and contemptuous number that reveals itself to be the album's maniacally beating heart, leaving miasmatic scorch marks all over the song's hooks and nagging mantra, "mono monomania, mono monomania."
Cox chants the words through dense layers of blown-out distortion as though they are a demonic incantation, summoning forth a malevolent power that is not of this earth. It's an unnerving blast of noise and emotions that turns the whole world topsy-turvy. But in light of these heavy themes, "Nitebike" and "Punk (La Vie Antérieure)" bring the album full circle. When these two numbers are placed side by side as the album's final numbers, they set an even-keeled mood. It's a return to damaged normalcy, evoking the post-rock, singer-songwriter ambiance that has come to define Cox's 2011 Atlas Sound solo outing, Parallax. And while Monomania may not be as focused or as consistently accessible as Halcyon Digest, the album is brilliant in its own right. Throughout its swaying moods and unpredictable fluctuations between darkness and power, it proves to be Deerhunter's most incendiary album to date. (4 out of 5 stars)