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Microcastle Alex Denney , September 11th, 2008 15:34

Deerhunter - Microcastle

Right now I'm thinking Bradford Cox might be a ghost. It's something to do with the fantastically slender frame, the alleged denial of the flesh, but mainly it's about how many find themselves delving into the luminous fog of Cox's music with Deerhunter and Atlas Sound only to pass right through to the other side without feeling a blessed thing. Indeed, the New York Times summed the latter project up as "pleasant guitar noise-clouds", which is either an erroneous dismissal or terse praise indeed: it's also a quote its recipient saw fit to take pride of place on his Myspace mantelpiece.

Yet Cox is not the manufacturer of some kind of new age bubble bath, and for others it's precisely this intangibility that makes his music so interesting. On Deerhunter's second album, 2007's breakthrough Cryptograms, his arrangements were little short of mesmeric and earmarked him as the heir apparent to Kevin Shields' or Brian Eno's sonic crown; disembodied sounds appearing out of the ether, bleeding out into the mix and disappearing so that songs sounded like they were somehow in the process of erasing themselves.

If Cryptograms mixed moments of ectoplasmic insurgency and free-floating reveries with juxtapositional flair it was the same year's phantasmagorical Fluorescent Grey EP which proved the band could hone their template further and produce more tightly-drafted material without sacrificing any of their sense of otherworldliness. Adhering to that logic but fluffing the execution a little, Microcastles winds up a comparatively straightforward pop/rock record that kills the smoke machine for a slightly underwhelming reveal.

Musically the album has more in common with the Seroxat pop and r'n'b soundscapes of Atlas Sound's Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel than Cryptograms' darkly undulating krautrock – not a bad thing per se, and evidence of the band's being increasingly in thrall to Cox's eccentrically inward-looking worldview, but it's a little thin when shorn of the spectral arrangements that made previous material shine so eerily bright and the writing isn't emphatically of the uppermost grade. Tracks like 'Never Stops' and 'Little Kids' wear their hooks more prominently than before but arguably fail to pack the punch such a presentation requires, and they lack the character of Deerhunter's best recordings as a result.

That said, Microcastles doesn't exactly lack for excitement: specifically, I'd say there are two or maybe three instances of absolute lucidity on the album, plus a clutch of thrilling moments. The first of this triptych of aces is 'Agoraphobia', a swooning bit of shoegaze pop that's also a plea for confinement that's also a desire simply not to be there; to be able to crawl out of one's own skin and escape one's thoughts completely. Maybe that's why Cox absents himself from the song altogether, guitarist Lockett Pundt filling in on vocal duties instead. Either way, the effect is at once uplifting and profoundly disconcerting – does this person want to achieve transcendence of some kind? Or simply to be left to die? When he intones "cover me" are we to infer from that the rather more sinister "smother", and is that "comfort me'' he's singing there or "come for me"? And so on:

"feed me twice a day / I want to fade away, away"...

"after some time, I know I would go blind / but seeing only binds the vision to the eye / I'll lose my voice I know, but I've nothing left to say"

The second star turn is the anomalous, blistering return to kraut form 'Nothing Ever Happened', an absolute wrecking ball of a riff and sense-defying instruction to "focus on the depth that was never there" giving way to an extended, Neu!-like groove clocking in at nearly six minutes. The third and arguably weakest of our claimants is 'Twilight At Carbon Lake', a willowy, spectral doo-wop number with a spectacular blow-out finale and lyric that highlights Cox's talent for revealing the strangeness of the inevitable, whether it be time, mortality, Christian names or, as is the case here, mirrors: "Go to the shore and pray for the sea / Go towards the mirror and pray that you'll see / Someone else".

As a somewhat awkward appendage to the LP proper sits Weird Era Cont, a bonus disc comprising an additional album's worth of material conceived of as an appeasing extra following the leak of Microcastles in May, itself leaked in unmastered form following an hilarious blog-related incident last month. It begins alarmingly well with 'Backstage Century' which chills to the core with its sinewy grind of guitar and lockstep rhythm, and the limber, tape-hiss funk of 'Operation' which masks a pretty arresting lyric: "operation, cover your ears / you're not gonna like what you're gonna hear / I hate you, I hate you, I hate you". 'Vox Celeste''s nostalgic rush beats M83 at their own game while 'VHS Dream' offsets its big music sweep with arrhythmic keys to terrific effect, and if quality levels aren't quite sustained throughout it hardly seems to matter, since by now the bigger picture should be starting to emerge.

Namely, that as an entity in its own right, Microcastles has a serious claim on your attention as one of the better releases of 2008, but at a pinch I'd say it's the Fluorescent Grey EP which remains the band's most fully realised recorded statement to date, and Let The Blind... which gets my vote for Cox's finest this year. From the (admittedly rose-tinted) perspective of a sprawling double-disc set, however, the overall impression is one of quicksilver imperfection; of grand pop ambition competing with - and occasionally harmonising with - the more familiar desire to burnish and to obscure, to bury one's treasures under a fine mist of scuff and obsessive polish. Leak or no, it's a record to haunt your days for months to come, and another sterling achievement from a band already staking impressive claim as one of the finest of their generation.