At the start of the decade, Deerhunter was the indie rock act to beat. Their third LP, 2008’s Microcastle, had been a huge leap forward. Psychedelic drones were still a part of their sound, but their songwriting had opened up to incorporate more traditional rock influences. Guitarist Lockett Pundt’s occasional contributions, like album opener and enduring live staple “Agoraphobia,” were even decidedly poppy. The band seemed poised for a breakthrough – the only question was whether eccentric frontman Bradford Cox would allow it.
Bradford Cox grew up in Marietta, Georgia, a queer latchkey kid in conservative suburbia. His distinctly gaunt appearance is due to Marfan Syndrome, the same genetic disorder that may have afflicted Abraham Lincoln. In an interview with Out Magazine shortly before Microcastle’s release, Cox, a self-described virgin, responded to a question about whether he thinks he’ll ever find “the one”: “I don’t. And that’s why I’ve retreated into aesthetic distractions. It’s very clichéd and simple, but I don’t love and respect myself enough to be able to accept that anybody could like me, and nobody can love you if you don’t love yourself.”
So Cox has made music his life, and he is prolific. But while the general trend leading up to the ‘10s was increased productivity and listener accessibility, he remained abrasive and inscrutable in interviews and on stage (one classic example of Bradford Cox being Bradford Cox: during a show in Minneapolis, someone in the audience jokingly requested “My Sharona,” which Bradford proceeded to play for 40 minutes before ending the concert).
Fifth Deerhunter LP Halcyon Digest came out in 2010, and it’s a hook-filled indie pop masterpiece. Maybe the warm response and critical accolades were too much, and so Bradford ensured the follow-up would be something very different: the angry, alienating, aggressively lo-fi Monomania.
The band debuted the title track on Fallon, and it’s probably my favorite TV performance of the decade (aside from Future Islands doing “Seasons” on Letterman, which is everybody’s favorite TV performance of the decade). “Monomania” has four distinct sections with no recurring hook or chorus. The back half descends into an agitated “mono-mono-mania” chant, and it’s all very punk-Syd Barrett. Cox wears a dark wig over his face and bloody bandages on his fingers, and wanders out of the studio to the elevator bank while the band continues to play. In a just world this would be considered a classic, but I’m not sure Bradford Cox would be happy if it were.