Editor’s Note: This feature was originally published in May 2013. It’s being republished in anticipation of Deerhunter’s new album, Fading Frontier.
Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we sort through the best and worst of the sharpest Deerhunter of them all.
There are some musicians that deserve to get Dissected because the inner workings of their catalog are mysterious, aspects and functions of their musical organs shrouded in mystery. And then there are musicians like Bradford Cox, people who have already so expertly vivisected themselves that you’d be foolish to not take the opportunity for a detailed examination.
That’s not to say that Cox’s work could be considered entirely straightforward and tangible; whether recording with Deerhunter or as Atlas Sound, his music ripples with abstracting psychedelia, poetic imagery, and religious allusion. I mean, there’s a reason the album’s called Cryptograms. Every album is doused in imagery of water, startling rainbows of language swirling in shades of foggy grey.
At the same time, though, the dude practically invented the word “candid” when it comes to interviews. His blog pushed that boundary even further, making Cox a lightning rod for controversy. Not to mention that a good chunk of his lyrics are so obviously autobiographical, stunningly honest about pains, fears, and anxieties.
With Deerhunter’s sixth studio album, Monomania, having just dropped, we thought it would be the perfect time to work through that strange fusion of total candor and hypnagogic puzzle, picking out a few key moments of Bradford Cox’s eccentricities to make sense of the duality.
Turn It Up Faggot (2005)
Duration: 9 tracks, 30:31
Rainbow of Pain (references to colors): “Black and blue refuged, cobwebbed, stripped, and mildewed” (“Basement”)
Watery Grave (references to water): “Rained on youth” (“Basement”), “Oceans of time connect each birth to a death” (“Oceans”)
Clarity (or lack thereof): A stormcloud raining thumbtacks, but, like, in a totally lo-fi way. That said, there’s still a reason Allmusic’s review called them “new wave revivalists.”
Real Talk: “I hate that album, I really do. I liked it when we did it, but we were a young band–just really desperate to put something out–and I don’t think we were ready.”
Not so vague religious references: “my body becomes both sacrament and host” and “Am I sleeping on a floor, or am I nailed to a cross” (“Adorno”), “Faith is boring” (“Tech School”)
Phobias: Normals (Tech School), Materialism “Seduced by Sports Car” (Ponds), Death (Oceans)
Cover Art Trippiness: Mirrored nude man with deer head? Mirrored nude man with deer head. 7/10
Scars: suicide, gas inhalation, nail punctures all in “Adorno”
Verdict: Cox isn’t entirely wrong in his own assessment, but it’s not as bad as all that. Signs of what’s to come in the dripping psychedelic urgency, but nowhere near as individual. –Adam Kivel
Duration: 12 tracks, 48:14
Rainbow of Pain: Red (“Red Ink”), white (“White Ink”)
Letting Go (Songs by other people): “Strange Lights” (music by Pundt).
Watery Graves: “My face like the Ocean” in “Spring Hall Convert”, melting ice covering the streets on “Hazel St.”
Clarity (or lack thereof): Like listening to “Loveless on mushrooms,” at least according to Cox. We totally haven’t tried. Not even three times.
Phobias: It’s unclear what it is – or what they are – but the album’s opening line is “my greatest fear”. Loneliness in “Spring Hall Convert”
Scars: Severe sunburn (“I walk into the sun” on “Strange Lights”)
Cover Art Trippiness: Wavy lines of fuschia and various shades of grey intertwine and spiral around…a deer: 8/10.
Verdict: Highlighted by back-to-back gigantic nostalgia trips (Cox’s “Strange Lights” and Pundt’s subsequent “Hazel St.”) about friendship and being sixteen and driving cars into the sun, the half-instrumental Cryptograms remains the culmination of one of their main established personalities, their self-described “ambient punk” side. –Steven Arroyo
Fluorescent Grey EP (2007)
Duration: 4 songs, 16:17 minutes
Rainbow of Pain: Fluorescent grey recurring (the color Bradford uses to describe dead bodies)
Not so vague religious references: “You’re my God” (“Fluorescent Grey”)
Clarity (or lack thereof): Comparitively, about as disorienting as that fake acid dropped in “Wash Off”. Which is to say for a while you’ll think you’re actually surrounded by pipe-smoking koalas, but then you just start to realize that the paper you swallowed just triggered a flashback instead of accomplishing that itself.
Mantras: “patiently patiently” (“Fluorescent Grey”), “I was 16” (“Wash Off”)
Real Talk: “so many useless bodies” (“Dr. Glass”)
Decomposing bodies referenced: “His body will decay / “flesh will be full of secrets” (Fluorescent Grey), “corpses rotting” (Dr. Glass), “Back to the crypt again” (Like New)
Album Art Trippiness: A pixelated orange face over an indiscernible photograph 5/10
Verdict: Fluorescent Grey is a succinct but skittering afterthought after 2007’s muddy Cryptograms. It’s perhaps the most rooted in punk-rock than any of Deerhunter’s releases — and as the predecessor to Microcastle, it retains the masturbatory elements of its predecessor while hinting at a tighter following EP, revolving around Bradford’s extended metaphor for a certain gray death. –Paula Mejia
Duration: 12 tracks, 40:48
Rainbow of Pain: Green (“Green Jacket”), black (“Old black bandit” on “Saved by Old Times”)
Letting Go: “Cover Me (Slowly)” (Cox and Pundt), “Agoraphobia” (Pundt), “Little Kids” (Cox and Pundt), “Nothing Ever Happened” (Deerhunter), “Neither of Us, Uncertainly” (Pundt).
Not so vague religious references: “Crucified on a cross in front of all my friends” (“Calvary Scars”), “Go to the shore and pray for the sea / Go towards the mirror and pray that you’ll see” (“Twilight at Carbon Lake”).
Phobias: “Agoraphobia”, possible oneirophobia on “Never Stops” (“I had dreams that frightened me awake”), ghosts and vampires on “Saved By Old Times”
Watery Graves: “I trickled out, creek would run dry” (Activa), “go to the shore and pray for the sea” (“Twilight at Carbon Lake”)
Clarity (or lack thereof): Like getting lost in a castle at the center of a maze in the middle of a ship in a bottle.
Scars: “Calvary Scars” pretty well sums it up.
Cover Art Trippiness: The album title written out in ransom note-style block letters and laid out over a blurry backdrop of windows and pillars: 3/10.
Verdict: An aurally and thematically seductive LP that taps into overblown adolescent emotion with pinpoint awareness, driven home by their defining epic “Nothing Ever Happened”. Between this and its counterpart in Weird Era Cont., 8/28/08 was Deerhunter’s true coming-out party, from curious weirdos to un-fuck-withable 21st century art rock titans. –Steven Arroyo
Weird Era Cont. (2008)
Duration: 13 tracks, 41:56
Not so vague religious references: “I remember the cathedral” (“Vox Humana”), “Crucified on a cross in front of all my friends” (“Calvary Scars II/Aux.Out”)
Phobias: Stockholm syndrome? “You can’t like what you fear” (Operation), separation anxiety “I don’t want you to stay/I need you to stay/ In my room” (“Vox Celeste”)
Mantras: “I hate you” (“Operation”)
Scars: “Send my regards to those who suffer endlessly” (“Backspace Century”), The physical transcendent into emotional (“Calvary Scars II”)
Clarity (or lack thereof): A pack of ghosts escaping from their haunted house to play freeze tag in a swamp.
Album Art Trippiness: The combined edition of Microcastle/Weird Era Cont. features a design by Cox, with a skull in his eye and a collaged blue backdrop with wheels, crushed cigarettes, ornate carriages and shirtless men drinking from an unnamed bottle. 8/10
Real Talk: When Microcastle leaked way before its physical release, an outraged Cox considered “abandoning the project altogether”. Weird Era Cont. was originally intended as a surprise for listeners who purchased Microcastle on the album’s release day.
Verdict: Weird Era Cont. is the strangely brilliant b-side component to Microcastle. By far it’s the most experimental of any Deerhunter studio releases to date, and relies on heavy experimentation with dissonance. The result is polarizing — noise aficionados will swoon over the distortion, and others may find it unpalatable. Weird Era, when unraveled, is a testament to Deerhunter’s meticulous care for tearing down a melody, and reconstructing it in a completely new form. It’s perhaps one of their most artful albums at the core, especially with the weighty, nine-minute long magnum opus “Calvary Scars II/Aux.Out” wrapping it up in one cathartic breath. –Paula Mejia
Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel (2008)
Duration: Originally 14 tracks, 50:01, plus bonus EP.
Colors Referenced: Blue river (“River Card”), white scars (“Bite Marks”)
Real Talk: In response to a question regarding the emotional nakedness: “I’m not calculated. I don’t mind sentimentality, as long as it’s not calculated.”
Watery Graves: “River so clear and blue/ i’m so in love with you, but you’ll drown me.” on “River Card”, “’Ive seen waves, hushed and soaked in static” and more on “Winter Vacation”
Phobias: Loss of friends (Pundt especially, throughout), Social Anxiety (“On Guard”)
Scars: Bite marks, cigarette burns, foot pain on “Bite Marks”
Clarity (or lack thereof): Learning about drug addiction and abuse has never sounded this easy!
Cover Art Trippiness: Fluorescent doctor photography 4/10
Verdict: This is Cox’s first official album under the Atlas Sound heading, but it’s clear from the developed voice and focused themes that he knows exactly what he’s doing. The frontman of Deerhunter isolating himself to focus in on his eccentricities and anxieties turned out to be just as hypnotic, raw, and compelling as you might imagine. He opens on a child reciting an incoherent ghost story and dives down that rabbit hole, the psychedelic swirls and hoary frost enveloping everything. –Adam Kivel
Rainwater Cassette Exchange EP (2009)
Duration: 5 tracks, 15:24
Rainbow of Pain: None. Even those ink colors from Cryptograms are “Disappearing”.
Not so vague religious references: “Oh yes my son” repeated on title track.
Phobias: A hint at sitophobia on “Game of Diamonds” (“I won’t eat”).
Clarity (or lack thereof): Sure, there’s some theremin wobbliness, but this one’s relatively clear. Even the instrumental outro to “Circulation” is more summer breeze than icy gale.
Scars: “Ollie off the sidewalk / Watch your brother bleeding”, “Watch your skin erupting” (“Famous Last Words”).
Cover Art Trippiness: An unintelligible figure inside a frame with an orange and blue scheme: 3/10.
Verdict: Five short tracks perfectly fit for the EP format and an ideal, satisfying-but-not-too-difficult holdover from Microcastle/Weird Era Cont. to Halcyon Digest. –Steven Arroyo
Duration: 11 tracks, 43:47
Not so vague religious references: “And to god I called out / over bullets” (“Criminals”), “Oh my god” (“Kid Klimax”)
Rainbow of Pain: White light (“Attic Lights”), “my portrait turned black” (“My Halo”), gray highways (“Kid Klimax”)
Phobias: Darkness (“The Light That Failed”)
Mantras: “Die alone together” (“Sheila”), “Oh my god” (“Kid Klimax”)
Clarity (or lack thereof): There’s some serious sunshine on this one, even the spacier moments lingering closer to that big, glowing orb than to an asteroid belt.
Real talk: “I considered abandoning the project. Logos is an album that is not about me. The lyrics are not autobiographical. The view is a lot more panoramic and less close-up. I became bored with introspection.
Scars: “My body will burn” on “My Halo”
Album Art Trippiness: Bradford Cox’s lanky form is due to Marfan’s syndrome, a bone disease that creates an effect of strange length. The cover features Cox himself with an enlarged chest cavity, a beam of otherworldly light covering what would be his face, over a nice peach backdrop. 6/10
Verdict: While Atlas Sound (and Deerhunter) albums typically rotate inward, Logos extends its prowess outward. It enlists the vocal stylings of Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier and Noah Lennox of Panda Bear, and features a much cleaner production than any of Atlas Sound’s fuzzier bedroom recordings. The result is death-singed pop songs, reeling and rampant in the way that Bradford Cox has perfected his self-deprecating and often surprising approach to songwriting. –Paula Mejia
Halcyon Digest (2010)
Duration: 11 tracks, 45:50
Rainbow of Pain: White (“Earthquake”), Black and Gray (“Desire Lines”), Gold (“Basement Scene, He Would Have Laughed”)
Letting Go: Lockett Pundt – “Desire Lines”
To Those We Have Lost: “He Would Have Laughed”, the album’s closing track is performed in tribute to Jay Reatard, who passed away the same year in Memphis, TN.
Not so vague religious references: “I am saved, I’m saved…I felt his presence near me” (“Revival”), “Take my hand and pray with me” (“Helicopter”), and the album’s prayerful cover.
Clarity (or lack thereof): Cox sure brushed the dust and ice off of this one. While the lyrics might not always spell things out for you, the album sounds as peaceful and golden as the word Halcyon suggests.
Phobias: Halcyon Digest is filled with fears, some not as explicit as others, including: the world outside of a basement, of a life of listlessness, of forgetting your past, of having no future, of enveloping darkness, of every single relationship encountered.
Cover Art Trippiness: A black and white, high-contrast photo of a dwarf in drag, kneeling in prayer, in what appears to be a vacant lot! Check please! 10/10
Verdict: Halcyon Digest might just be Deerhunter’s masterpiece. The record’s cohesiveness, sequencing, and immaculate production all showcase a band in their prime, capable of everything from psychedelic wanderlust to enveloping shoegaze to propulsive epics to experimental pop. All the while, Cox guides us through the murky production with similarly murky thoughts of listless fear, as if we’re all rendered helpless in a damp, dark basement, barely able to see any light at all. –Drew Litowitz
Duration: 12 tracks, 48:32
Rainbow of Pain: Blue (“The Shakes”), Grey (“My Angel is Broken”)
To Those We Have Lost: The album is dedicated to Broadcast’s late Trish Keenan, who died of pneumonia the same year. “She’s the epicenter of the album; she suggested all of it.” – Cox to Pitchfork, November 2011
Not so vague religious references: “Dip me in the water – baptize me” (“Praying Man”), “Everywhere I look, my angel is broken” (“Angel is Broken”), “It’s a story of a little boy who went to hell” (“The Doldrums”), “Holy Ghost, tripled host, I saw. Carry me home” (“Terra Incognita”)
Phobias: Fame and Money (“The Shakes”), Love (“Modern Aquatic Nightsongs”), Relationships
Clarity (or lack thereof): The atmospheric storms provide more crystalline sheen than obfuscation.
Cover Art Trippiness: Veteran rock photographer Mick Rock’s Elvis-indebted portrait of Cox might be Cox’s least trippy album cover to date. The oversaturated colors and deep contrast might be a little eerie, but it’s pretty straightforward. 2/10
Verdict: Parallax is Cox’s most polished solo record. It explores many of Cox’s thematic touchstones: fear of abandonment, fear of isolation, darkness vs. light, growing old, etc. Here, Cox taps into a world of swirling hums and mirroring delay, almost creating a series of manic lullabies to calm him and his fears to sleep. Some of these songs kick up the energy, but they all retain a dream-like quality. It’s almost a 180 turn from the forthcoming Monomania and marks the conclusion of an era of Cox’s supreme control over his ambient-pop tendencies; the final element in a one-two dreampop punch of Halcyon Digest and Parallax. And if Turn it Up Faggot was Cox’s nightmare, Parallax is certainly a dream to behold. –Drew Litowitz
Duration: 12 songs, 43:14
Colors referenced: neon (“Neon Junkyard”), golden light (“Blue Agent”), blue (“Blue Agent”).
Mantras: Monomania. Monomania. Monomania.
Scars: “You broke me and left these little pieces” (“Back to the Middle”), “I don’t got nobody to take care of me” (“Dream Captain”), “Ever since I was born, I’ve felt so forlorn” (“THM”)
Shit talked: “If you’re looking for a friend now, better look someplace else” (“Blue Agent”)
Album Art Trippiness: 1/10. Gone are the emaciated half-bodies and warped ripples, and instead a single neon sign bearing the album’s title is visible. It’s a beacon of sorts, encased in black, and glorious nonetheless.
Verdict: Monomania sharply departs from the delicacy of 2010‘s Halcyon Digest. Here, the gutter-punk revival is both fierce and alienating. Yet in the quieter moments Monomania listens like a blues album birthed from the Delta, with the unsettlement of Cox’s frenetic mental pace channeled through the struts of leather-draped rock and roll. –Adam Kivel