Deerhunter has matured more in the last two years than even some of the best bands do in at least five years, and reached a plateau that most bands never even sniff. As a constant source of crazy headlines followed Deerhunter and Bradford Cox wherever he and the band went in late 2007, we forgot just how much Cryptograms did to reshape the conventions, framework and soundscape of a noise-rock album. It was deceptively aggressive, and when I listened to it again for the first time in months recently, I was overcome with its nervous, urgent energy more so ever before (whereas in the past, I had been mostly baffled).
After nearly pushing Deerhunter to the brink of death (both figuratively and literally), Cox showed signs of entering a new phase of maturity with his Atlas Sound album, Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel. That album earned wild praise at the beginning of the year, but it was an uneven, frequently infuriating endeavor. Microcastle, on the other hand, takes the innovations of Cox’s Atlas Sound work and puts it together in a consistent, unflinchingly honest, naked emotional pastiche. It doesn’t reach the heights of some of Cox’s and Deerhunter’s previous work, but it reinforces the notion that this is one of the definitive bands of the late 2000s.
I could come up with only two parallels for the jump from the radical structural innovations of Cryptograms to the restrained, unvarnished honesty of Microcastle. The first and most obvious is the Velvet Underground’s transition between White Light/White Heat and its self-titled third album. In both cases, a band that defied categorization or easy parallel suddenly became an permanent, enduring rock band. The second parallel, which may be more fitting, is to imagine what would have happened if Sonic Youth went straight from Bad Moon Rising to Goo. Some would say that leaves out three classic albums. I say Deerhunter has accomplished what Sonic Youth accomplished in its respective generation of indie rock in less than half the time.
The shock of hearing such a toned-down, even sweet-sounding Bradford Cox in “Agoraphobia” is perhaps the biggest shock Deerhunter could hope to achieve on this album. The carefully placed distortion of the following track, “Never Stops,” paradoxically serves as the third-track cool-down, even as the nosiest track of Microcastle’s first half. Continuing the convention-defying structure that Deerhunter pioneered with Cryptograms, Microcastle starts slow and spirals into something much larger.
This structure lets the band get away with some of the album’s shortcomings. The extended downer stretch at the end of the album’s first half would kill a more poorly crafted album. Microcastle, however, stays interesting just long enough for it to begin its second wave with “Nothing Ever Happened,” the album’s first single. Despite being about two minutes too long, “Nothing Ever Happened” is the true standout of Microcastle, as much for Cox’s internal dialogue as for its brave sense of melody. In that song, Cox sings, “Focus on depth that was never there/ Eliminate what you can’t repair/ Nothing ever happened to me/ Life just passing, flash right through me.” The urgency with which Cox performs the song suggests he’s as much trying to convince himself of the power of absolution as he is trying to convince his listeners.
The members of Deerhunter don’t believe in hoping to die before they get old; they feel the band has no other choice. In the second-to-last track, “Neither of Us, Uncertainly,” Cox decries those who wait to find their identity “until you can wait no more.” Musically, this has never been truer. The window for a band to make an impact has shrunk dramatically. Over the past year, we’ve seen too many promising bands break up prematurely to ever take a good catalog for granted again. Deerhunter has sensed this, and out of that urgency has produced a catalog that’s timely yet timeless, noisy yet thoughtful. This is a remarkable feat.
No matter what comes of Deerhunter after Microcastle, the band’s legacy as one of the finest bands of its generation is already sealed. It’s the band’s keen sense of contemporary culture, let alone music, that has gotten it to where it is.