Deerhunter
Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.
Kranky/4AD

2.5 out of 5 Stars

Microcastle, released with bonus disc Weird Era Cont., has all the hallmarks of an indie rock masterpiece. Esoteric subgenre styles like shoegaze, post-rock and noise-pop are all accounted for; the lyrics are insular and the scope of it all is enormous. Echoes of influential indie bands are present throughout the discs: feedback junkies My Bloody Valentine and avant-folk rockers Animal Collective inform the affair. Lead singer Bradford Cox’s vocals are meek, beaten-down and earnest, inviting listeners to be swept into his bleak inner world. So far, so good, right? And yet Microcastle/Weird Era Cont.’s familiarity is its greatest shortcoming.

Deerhunter is especially derivative here, mechanically turning out predictable subgenre pieces. Almost everything on the double album has been done before and done better. That’s not to say Deerhunter is ingenuous or commercial. Cox is an earnest songwriter who deftly paints portraits of depression through both his sounds and lyrics. Despite his talent, the plodding, redundant songs lack sufficient development or originality, falling short of the standards set by similarly-minded artists like Pavement or Godspeed You! Black Emperor. In all but a few cases, Deerhunter’s spurned resolutions, stubborn repetitions and earthy noise-jams fail to engage.

“Agoraphobia” is an exception of excellence in the otherwise average record. It showcases Cox’s knack for dreamy pop, which is clearly stronger than his grasp of noise. Enchanting clean guitar arpeggios outline the bars, filled in by Cox’s endearing vocal performance and a sharp but simple rhythm section. Two minutes in, a buzzing guitar arises, driving the evocative chord progression to the song’s conclusion. Its masochistic lyrics are pure poetry: “And after some time / I know I would go blind / But seeing only binds / The vision to the eye.” Cox’s words aren’t as clear or captivating elsewhere.

Another standout is “Nothing Ever Happened,” which kicks off with a propulsive bass-beat and jangling guitar chords straight out of ‘90s alternative. During the verses, the guitar mirrors the melody and snare hits punctuate the stressed syllables. The piece follows a satisfying line of development, eschewing the verse and chorus structure early on. Its long conclusion features crafty interplay between the two guitars — while one dabbles in noisy abstract phrasing, another teases out variations of the central theme. Deerhunter is in their element when prioritizing melody and musicianship.

Rare moments of brilliance aside, Microcastle/Weird Era Cont. isn’t original or daring enough to live up to legacies of the bands that inspired it. It also pales in comparison to Cox’s recent solo album under the Atlas Sound moniker, Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel. Blind had a striking unity of vision in the way it combined lush sample looping, electronic beats and swooning vocals. His latest work isn’t nearly as focused or fresh.

“Calvary Scars II/Aux Out,” the monolithic 10-minute closer, exemplifies the double album’s weaknesses. Its debt to pre-Strawberry Jam Animal Collective is apparent in the halting rhythms and bristly textures of the first segment. Later, it suffers a tedious end: a guitar drone sprinkled with hapless wind chimes drags on for six minutes without much complication. Missing a sense of evolution or progression in many of its songs, Microcastle/Weird Era Cont. is a floundering disappointment.

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