What is punk? Is it the primitive, three-chord fury of the Sex Pistols? Is it the activist wit of Elvis Costello? Or is it the energy of the Ramones? In any case, punk is a style of music that critics and listeners have been trying to piece together in the 30-plus years since its inception, which brings us to Georgia-based Deerhunter’s sixth album, Monomania, a powerful, gritty departure from their more recent discography. In finding energy and beauty in the surface-layer crunch of modern garage rock, Deerhunter may just have found the definition of the word “punk.”
Stylistically, most of Monomania has the kind of grit, energy, and rage that has defined punk since the late 1970s. On “Leather Jacket II,” guitarist Lockett Pundt guides the chaotic, distortion-heavy track with a flaring guitar riff as vocalist Bradford Cox moans in the background. “Dream Captain” adds a layer of psychedelia as Cox shouts in a sharp, piercing tone for the titular “dream captain” to “take [him] on [his] ship.” “Blue Agent” somehow shimmers and slithers at the same time, as Cox’s reverb-heavy coo intertwines with spine-tingling guitar accompaniment. “Monomania,” the album’s first single, feels like the nexus of the band’s rage, as Cox snarls over jagged instrumentation and enters a trance, repeating the word “monomania” obsessively for the final two minutes of the track. On the surface, much of Monomania obeys the distortion-dominated, fast-paced traditions that have defined punk over the past few decades and proves that Deerhunter is one of music’s most powerful bands.
Indeed, the lighter tracks maintain this stylistic theme. “Neon Junkyard,” the album’s opener, may have a slower pace, but it has the sonic crunch of no wave bands like Sonic Youth. “Pensacola,” a faux-country track, is likely the kind of piece Hank Williams would have written had he been a member of the Sex Pistols. Even “Nitebike,” a largely acoustic track from Bradford Cox, has the reverb and echo of shoegaze. Stylistically, everything that Deerhunter creates here is layered in punk technique.
The entire album, then, seems to build up to the final track, “Punk (La Vie Antérieure),” a relatively simple song by Deerhunter standards. It’s a moody, less distorted piece, even if Cox’s vocals seem to growl through a lo-fi microphone. But it’s the lyrics that truly reveal the Deerhunter brand of punk. In the track, Cox recalls his (or at least an anonymous) troubled past of feeling lost, alone, and afraid, not knowing where to go in life. “For a month, I had no luck / For a drunk, I was young,” Cox wails over the track. Perhaps this is Cox’s definition of punk—of being on the outside, of obsessively looking inward. To him, punk is not a style or a tradition but rather a lifestyle, an experience.
For Deerhunter, Monomania is more than just their “punk” album. It’s a broad artistic statement of the band’s purpose. As an album, it’s a beautiful piece of work, filled with energetic power that rockets itself into your eardrums and lives in your bones. Monomania should be remembered as Deerhunter’s true mark on music—their memoirs of “la vie antérieure.” Looking back on their decade of existence, creating punk music in all of its forms seems to be the band’s obsessive goal, truly the noblest kind of monomania. Finally, they’ve succeeded, producing the kind of album that comes along once in a career.