Between all of the dreamy benzo pop of Bradford Cox's overflowing Atlas Sound output and last year’s teaser Deerhunter EP, Fluorescent Gray, it's easy to forget that the latter band, ostensibly with Cox at the helm, put out a debut three years ago called Turn It Up, Faggot that sounded like the psychedelic punk snarlings of a picked-on kid, and a divisive follow-up, Cryptograms, that at the very least sunk that spirit in its swirling, meandering, and frequently aimless drones.
So what was Cox so pissed off about, anyway? It likely doesn’t matter–punk isn’t what makes Deerhunter an interesting band. Punk was what made Cryptograms an interesting record, but not necessarily a good one. What made that album actually good were tracks like “Strange Lights,” which took blissful ’60s pop and showed–Kranky Records-style–just how dreamy you can really make a song. Next to wasteful, lazy ambient interludes like “Tape Hiss Orchid” and “Red Ink,” the thought and craft in that subsection of the record let us know this was a band worth sticking around for. We did, and got an excellent album from Cox’s Atlas Sound solo project, Let the Blind Lead Those That Can See But Cannot Feel; its soupy pop proved to be a somewhat accurate prediction of what Deerhunter would bring forth on its first post-hype full-length, Microcastle.
Microcastle is more an indie-rock record than most anything Cox and Company have attempted before. “Saved by Old Times” is even abruptly so–effects are kept in check and it’s mainly just Cox’s voice, as strange and ghostly and narcoticized as ever. The song itself is, dare say, bluesy, led by an un-effected guitar pattern that keeps an even meter (unlike “old” Deerhunter or Atlas Sound songs, which slowly expanded sponge-like into psychedelic space).
Microcastle’s jewel–and, so far, the band’s–comes about two-thirds of the way through the record on the six-minute mini-epic “Nothing Ever Happened.” Like “Saved by Old Times,” it’s a bit of a rock song, and one that tears at that. It’s also angry–the feedback is sharper than anything on Cryptograms, the bassline is urgent, and Cox intones morosely and surprisingly expressively (for someone who usually fronts as a phantom) “Nothing ever happened to me/Life just passing/Flash right through me.” At about the four-minute mark, it sounds like Cox decided Fuck it, I’m going to make something happen, and the song goes off into a thrilling climax of acerbic, soloing guitars. “Little Kids” succeeds in much the same way: About two minutes in, the song breaks out into a series of ecstatic, absolutely thundering crests.
These are such key moments–Cryptograms floundered often because some of its songs never got to any kind of resolution, they just bobbed up and down in a kind of pretty yet mundane stew. While Microcastle's songs aren’t angry or punk–and they sure aren’t satisfied–its moments of roar and unrest have a direction; they mean something. That something–decode Cox’s anxious lyricism for what that might be on your own time–is what makes Microcastle Deerhunter’s most arresting and certainly most lasting record to date. At the very least, it shows the band is giving a fuck.