Like Joey Ramone, Atlanta’s (by way of Athens) Bradford Cox has Marfan’s syndrome — a genetic condition that produces sleeves too long for the heart. Both a child of divorce and a non-practicing homosexual, his formative years in the South were surely rough. Ensconced in his suburban bedroom, though, equipped with an Atlas Sound cassette recorder (thus the name of his would-be vanity project), Cox dropped out of Harrison High before the turn of the millennium in favor of the only two schools he really cared about: the hypnotic and the hook. Deerhunter didn’t form until 2001, recording a split 7-inch with Alphabets, limited to just 300 copies, two years later. The Deerhunter tracks (“Adorno (Notown Version)” and “Tree Spies”) featured drummer Moses Archuleta, bassist Justin Bosworth and guitarist Colin Mee, whom Cox had met through the Black Lips while sleeping on the floor of the Atlanta venue/label Die Slaughterhaus. Bosworth died in a skateboarding accident, leaving Joshua Fauver of Electrosleep International to pick up the four strings.
The band’s first album, commonly referred to as Turn It Up Faggot, was dedicated to Bosworth. The two salient tropes of Cox’s juvenilia — self-indulgent psych and self-effacing pop — are equally on display. On the crucifixion as suicide number “Adorno,” he shoots for grown-up gravitas, but he’s still a smidge left-center of the star mark. It’s auspicious enough however, and the closing “Death Drag” makes this one worth plucking from obscurity.
Likewise, Cryptograms is very much a two-headed dog. The band’s first with guitarist Lockett Pundt was also their first record to garner anything more than a carpetbagger’s blog post outside of Georgia. Formerly ready to mix whole-grain songs with the more experimental chaff, Deerhunter duality is quite segregated on this album, autonomous yet complimentary halves recorded in marathon sessions months apart. Part one is a brooding slow burn; Cox coos (on “Hazel St.”) “the subject is always just out of reach.” Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in space here. The instrumental “Red Ink” ends side and sound with the tape spinning off the feed reel. Track eight, “Spring Hall Convert,” moves the disc toward chipper. Billowy and uplifting (“So long loneliness / So far from home”), its sunbaked ’60s sheen is infinitely more accessible. “Lake Somerset,” about a hung-over excursion to the zoo, is equally catchy, despite the shoegaze squall that threatens a more sinister outing. “Heatherwood” is a legit homecoming game, even if Cox thinks he’s going home to pasture. With Cryptograms, it’s not so much the final message decoded as it was the ciphers used to cloak it.
Fluorescent Grey followed three months later. (Cryptograms was reissued with its four songs added as the fourth side.) Neither epilogue nor afterthought, this is much more concentrated in intent. Named for the color Cox attributes to decaying flesh, he’s pointing out here that bodies at rest, as it were, don’t really stay that way. They distend. They percolate. And only then do they begin to disintegrate. There’s a morbid sexuality, too, to the title track. Over a gorgeous piano arpeggio, Cox dreams of calling out to a boy. It’s a silly flirt, obviously, as the boy will ultimately become just another fluorescent grey. ‘”You were my god in high school,” he intones. “People never really know,” he concludes.
Microcastle/Weird Era Cont. is Deerhunter’s kill shot. It contains their best single to date, “Nothing Ever Happened,” which is Godot for kids who bought into “oh well, whatever… Nevermind.” It’s an exquisite, debilitating ode to the futility of it all. “Focus on depths that were never there / Nothing’s easy, nothing fair.” But, as usual, Cox saves the worst for last: “I never saw it coming.” The album leaked a good two months before its physical release, so the only real revelation to those who actually waited to unwrap the thing in person was finding out just how much Pundt contributed. He takes to the mic on “Agoraphobia,” and his hushed insistence is a welcome change of timbre and earnestness. More welcome, overall, is the aesthetic armistice between the band’s two stylistic factions. “Never Stops” is a great song. “Saved by Old Times” is an even better one. And “Nothing Ever Happened” is the alternative’s alternative rock anthem. They all succeed because the band has finally dispensed with the psych-versus- pop dichotomy and allowed them to co-exist equally, not separately. Weird Era Cont. was released concurrently with Microcastle and was intended to reward those who waited patiently for the latter’s official street drop. Of course, it leaked early as well. (A 2.0 cyber klutz, Cox offered up some rough demos via the band blog that linked to his very much open Mediafire account.) Here again, Pundt turns in an adept vocal turn on the reverberating gem “Dot Gain.” And the stridently noisy single “Vox Celeste 5” also saw life in Sub Pop’s Singles Club. For any haters decrying a potential stylistic sell out, keep listening, o ye of little wait. The instrumentals on this one are some of the most challenging and engrossing stuff in the entire Deerhunter discography.
“Time never meant that much to me,” allows Cox on the East-meets-the Everlys “Game of Diamonds” on the Rainwater Cassette Exchange EP. So why not put out every available odd, every single sod you’ve recorded? Well, because other than “Game of Diamonds” and the lead-off title cut, there’s nothing here that’s not been done — and executed better, no less — before. “Nothing can be changed” (“Famous Last Words”): if you’re going to flood the market, then that water better be worth a damn. If it’s not, then ask for your money back…or at least an exchange.
The main problem with nostalgia is ownership. How do you know if what you’re remembering is, in fact, your own memory, and not one of some mass, Proustlike collective? According to Halcyon Digest, you don’t. Furthermore, you might never can. Deerhunter’s best remedy is to forge ahead, writing killer off-kilter indie rock songs — thus making a compendium of new memories with a constantly refreshing cache. But, like Dylan in the movies, it’s hard not looking back. For every two strides of progress — the electro-acoustic lament of “Helicopter,” Bill Oglesby’s saxophone on “Fountain Stairs” and “Coronado” — there’s at least one tiptoe backwards (e.g., the Southern gothic revival of “Revival”). And compared to the brackish din of “Don’t Cry” and “Desire Lines,” a sad sack number like “Sailing” comes off a bit like a pity party where Cox is the only attendee. Dedications to the departed are, axiomatically, decidedly retrofit endeavors. Therefore, “He Would Have Laughed,” the almost eight-minute finale for the late Memphis garage punk Jay Reatard, was doomed from the get-go — as far as progress is concerned. Unlike evolution, where something somewhere always gets left behind, the great thing about progress is that it makes life easier for all parties involved. And at least as far as Deerhunter is concerned, the advancements made here have, weirdly enough, also made for the most accessible album of the band’s career. And finally, after three years toil, it’s good to hear them accurately capture the true, fucked-up essence of a Dennis Cooper story on “Helicopter.”