From the opening tidal drone of “Cover Me (Slowly)” to the final closing cacophony, indirection permeates Deerhunter’s latest album, Microcastle. Bradford Cox (and cohorts) are at a crossroad- the only instrumental on the record is less than two minutes long and the noise wash of Cryptograms and the Fluorescent Grey EP is in sharp decline, yet it’s unmistakably the same band that hammered it all together. For one thing, nobody else sounds so much like Eno producing My Blood Valentine.
But if the central motif of the album is uncertainty, the results certainly aren’t- if anything, the delicate guitars and murmured pleas of “Agoraphobia” are some of the most pop-oriented and beautiful tunes that they have yet produced. The repeated refrain of “Come for me / Comfort Me” strikes to the heart of the album from the start- dreams are everywhere, and so are nightmares. The next track, “Never Stops” (cribbing an Echo & the Bunnymen title), pursues the theme, the specter of what comes in the night hanging over Cox’s desperate cries, as “Never come / Would never come” suddenly becomes “It never stops.” Later on, the title track carries a minimalist, shimmering guitar line into a sudden thunderous burst of drums and buzz, all the while musing on the same midnight doubts and failure.
Even the typically weaker middle tracks survive by hypnosis; songs like “Calvary Scars” and “Green Jacket” try to carry too much on the strength of a simple progression of piano notes or a percussive scrape and suffer for it. “Activa” holds the heaviest burden of boredom- fortunately, wind chimes and underwater effects can only go on so long. This is music that might sound good for a few seconds, but even two minutes of the same thing can get tiring.
The biggest question about this album is not quality or ability- it’s practically unquestionable that the band has grown through its line-up changes (no doubt that Cox is the main man, if there ever was any) and Microcastle will undoubtedly be one of most notable indie albums of the year, from a band with muscles (just listen to the throbbing bass line of “Nothing Ever Happened, if you don’t believe me) and the arcane lyric sensibility of a far older group. But more than all of that, their ability to craft a pop hook as enthralling as the fuzzy tones of “Nothing Ever Happened” out of vagueness, uncertainty and abrasion is nothing short of incredible. From here, they could either drift further into the rarefied world of pop or into the more concrete one of art-rock. Just as Cox murmurs the closing words of the album “Go away/Time slows/So long” on “Twilight At Carbon Lake” amidst a thunder of wails and drums, we say goodbye to one phase of Deerhunter. Microcastle may be Cox and company’s great leap forward, or a mere stumble on the way to a much different band. After an album like this, they just can’t stay the same.