Deerhunter - Microcastle (Kranky, 2008)
A good friend has been raving about Deerhunter at me for some time. Their 2007 album ‘Cryptograms’ struck me as interesting but a little cold and self-absorbed. With ‘Microcastle’, an album much-hyped following a pre-release internet leak and swift appearance on iTunes, I think I suddenly get it. Maybe it’s that I’ve been enchanted by Deerhunter mainman Bradford Cox’s romantic sheets-of-noise side project Atlas Sound and that the demarcation between the two projects seems increasingly permeable. Or perhaps it’s simply that there’s a greater spectrum of ideas and influences at work on ‘Microcastle’ – right down to the incorporation of a stronger sense of melody and harmony, much of it assimilated from 50s and 60s pop.
The impact of Deerhunter’s music has in the past been mainly visceral. On ‘Microcastle’, Cox has tempered that brutal force with something more emotional.
The mostly fuzzy guitars hint at The Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine and a wealth of British shoegazers, but it’s both more musical and more engaged than such comparisons suggest. There are moments of deceptive prettiness such as ‘Agoraphobia’ that mask the desperation or frustration that sometimes haunt Cox’s monosyllabic lyrics. Also, Cox frequently lends his melodies an unexpected twist of melancholy that transports his music far away from anything twee.
Similarly, there’s no sense of redundant or empty celebration here, and it’s clear that whilst music is a labour of love for Cox, it’s also a form of catharsis. The combination of healing and infectious enthusiasm is what imbues ‘Microcastle’ with a distinctive musical personality and a crossover appeal. The gradual swells of ‘Little Kids’ and ‘Neverstops’ transform songs of brief duration into expansive epics, whilst the sheer momentum and energy of ‘Nothing Ever Happened’ renders it irresistible. There’s every sense that this music could reach the Arcade Fire contingent – it’s the sort of combination of vulnerability, anger and impressionism that inspires devotion. Plus the gangly, ungainly Cox hardly looks any weirder than Win Butler and his not-so-merry band.
Sometimes the power of the music is based largely on pitting repeated phrases against increasing layers of sound. This technique works brilliantly on the near-euphoric coda to ‘Little Kids’, and the effect is made even more potent by its juxtaposition with the stark, almost naked sounding introduction to the title track. Cox manages to make a virtue of the inherent limitations of his voice – it’s weak, but he frequently makes it sound awestruck and overpowered by its environment rather than useless. The effect is then repeated in reverse when ‘Microcastle’ bursts into a joyous heat-haze. The sequencing may well be as significant as the production and writing on this album – it’s certainly difficult to hear it without the grandiose ‘Twilight at Carbon Lake’ rounding things off.
There’s a surreal, magical and romantic mood to the three brief pieces that make up the centre of the album. ‘Calvary Scars’ and ‘Green Jacket’ are melancholy and touching, whilst ‘Activa’ is deeply odd, the overall effect of the three combined being somewhat discomforting. With the latter, it’s a result of what is held back as much as what is stated – unusual sounds are left lingering and there’s a wealth of space in the music. Much of the success of ‘Microcastle’ stems from Cox’s admirable concision – no idea ever outstays its welcome here.
Sometimes there’s a sense that Cox might merely be luxuriating in his record collection – for example, the motorik ending of ‘Nothing Ever Happened’ that echoes Neu! or Joy Division or the Spector-ish pop influences with which he liberally peppers the rest of the album. Yet ‘Nothing Ever Happened’ is so much more satisfying a refashioning of Krautrock than anything Primal Scream have recently served up, and the influences always seem to be serviced towards a broader, overarching vision. Cox may describe ‘Twilight at Carbon Lake’ as ‘doo-wop’ – but it’s a particularly warped, outsider’s take on the form.
Live at The Dome in Tufnell Park a month or so ago, the group not only seemed on excellent form (they are one of those bands who seem to create a massive, unstoppable sound from a straightforward onstage set-up) but also appeared rather amiable. Cox, gangly and distressingly thin, is an unusual and dominant presence on stage, and whilst he is clearly very serious about his music, he also seems very serious about pleasing those who take the time and effort to hear him. It’s this kind of relationship between band and audience that makes some groups stand out from the crowd – it is, after all, what transported Arcade Fire into arenas.