Why I Listened to Deerhunter Between My Breakdowns

[caption id="attachment_74833" align="alignleft" width="640"] Deerhunter Deerhunter Photo: Robert Semmer[/caption]

Through songwriting, charisma, a synthesis of particular influences, and a lot of noise, Deerhunter have become one of the more aesthetically favored bands in the indie-rock universe.  They've distilled generations of underground guitar music in a modern and singular vocabulary, and used it to build a near-perfect catalog of music.

But intellectualizing Deerhunter is not really the way I connect with Deerhunter. I feel Deerhunter. I sing along and air guitar and imagine myself playing in the band. You know how you get cravings for a certain band, how nothing else will suffice other than hearing that band? I crave listening to Deerhunter.

One afternoon after their fourth album Halcyon Digest leaked, during a bout of suicidal depression, I shivered underneath my covers, blocked out every ray of light coming in from outside, and played Deerhunter through my speakers non-stop. During those months and thereafter, I realized Deerhunter was not just my favorite dish of art-rock comfort food, but an incredibly important band to me all around.

"Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox reportedly suffered from an emotional breakdown around the same time I had another of my own. I was hospitalized again."

I would say that the emotional collapse of that day was standard fare among the breakdowns I suffered: Most of the ones I’ve experienced come at night while I’m trying to sleep. I would be out of prescription-strength sleeping pills and on the over-the-counter stuff, lying in bed, thinking about my mistakes and failures, primarily in the field of romantic love. I would feel sharp pains in my chest during these breakdowns; I would feel simultaneously tired and not able to sleep, and then things would rapidly deteriorate. Balled up underneath my covers,  I would sob uncontrollably and wish myself dead. I’d cry, I’d shake, I’d try to tell myself it would be okay while trying not to tell myself I was a complete speck of dirt.

With Deerhunter it's easy to bypass the actual songs and focus on the influences. But the songs themselves speak deeply to the lonely and the downtrodden, the heartsick depressives and the ostracized castaways. And I am a lonely, heartsick depressive. Deerhunter is a band that not only speaks my musical language, but explores themes (most notably loneliness) that feel like the same states of malignant mental health that I've been in.

Toward the end of my very dark period, the police came to the door of my house. One of the officers was a frequent visitor of my day job. They had gotten a tip that I was about to kill myself -- likely sent from any one of a core group of my friends -- and we had a talk. At the end of the talk, I agreed to go to the hospital. I had given up on hating myself as vigorously as I had been; I was tired of being miserable. I stayed at a hospital near my house for most of the night, and then a mental hospital for nearly two days after. Two days was all I needed of that place.

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Deerhunter's Bradford Cox reportedly suffered from an emotional breakdown around the same time I had another of my own. I was hospitalized again. Sometime during my pre-hospital period, I read a typically candid Rolling Stone interview with Cox where he first used the monomania quote that apparently came in the press release for the new Deerhunter album:

“I guess my time as a musician has gone by so fast that I realized that I have no personal life. The other guys in Deerhunter, they all found things. And I just have monomania. I always will. I'm obsessive about one thing, that there's one thing that's going to make me happy and it's making music, or there's one thing that's going to make me happy and it's this person.”

"'Monomania' doesn’t exactly distract me from my declining mental health. But while I deeply understand the themes of its songs, none of them are triggers into that awful territory."

Only the final part of the last sentence was cut out of the press release and it was made to seem as though making music was the only monomaniacal activity Cox participated in. But I’ve read many Bradford Cox interviews -- because I like his interviews, because he portrays himself accurately as a human being with human problems instead of some indie-rock star puppet -- and I've decided that his insane work ethic is the distraction, not the focus. His real monomania lies in the way he obsesses over romantic love. With a person who suffers from that same affliction, I’ll say the signs are all over the place on this record.

Monomania is just a fancy way to say someone has a one-track mind. It gives the (admittedly accurate) impression of having a one-track mind is a mental illness. Most anybody with a mind has some kind of diagnosable mental illness these days. But obsession is one of the tougher things to suffer through. Some people hear many voices in their head; hearing only one is just as bad.

"I came from the Delta, down to the plains/ When I got back home, there was nothing I’d arranged/ Woman that I love left, took another man/ Nothing ever ends up quite like what you plan."

Those are the four bars that rattle toward the end of “Pensacola,” one of Monomania’s highlights and the only song of Deerhunter’s that could be described as "rollicking country." It’s not Shakespeare, it’s not even one of Cox’s best couplets, but it affected me in a way few songs have. One of the first things I lost in my breakdowns was my girlfriend. We were in a long-distance relationship, and I flew down to hear her tell me she had met someone new -- not necessarily better, but someone easier to deal with. Whatever she and I had was over. But that’s not the entire reason the song resonates with me.

The weird part is that I hear “Pensacola” and I don’t think of these lyrics until I hear them. I hear two madly-in-love twenty-somethings on a long U-Haul drive across quite a few state lines in a music video. Everything is sunny, everybody is all smiles, my girlfriend’s holding my hand, and I’m wearing some cool shades and a straw hat. I hear what could have been. But nothing ever ends up quite like what you plan.

"Finding the fluorescence in the junk/ By night illuminates the day."

Every piece of Monomania seems to contain the whole of it in miniature. It’s not exactly a concept record, but every bit as well-rounded thematically; every blast of guitar feedback, every redlined vocal feels like another tiny piece to build up the album’s overarching theme. Neon junkyards are sifted through for treasure, dream captains are solicited by hopeful deck cadets to escape the often crushing feeling of being conscious, and pretty pop numbers soundtrack the chronicles of suicidal kid brothers. Closing number “Punk (La Vie Antérieure)” is a throwback to the creeping intensity of Cryptograms, where Cox reads through a laundry list of teenage and adult phases (including the obliquely powerful line “For a year, I was queer/ I had conquered all my fears”). “Leather Jacket II” captures the release of gnarling psychosis in such a manner, it makes you wonder how harsh the as-yet unreleased first version sounds.

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“The Missing,” Lockett Pundt’s sole songwriting contribution to the album, immediately clears away the grit and smoke machines of “Leather Jacket II,” but keeps its rubbed-raw feeling inntact. Both on past Deerhunter tracks and his own work as Lotus Plaza, Pundt has his own way of matching the loneliness his bandmate investigates in his songs: by searching for relics and people from his past through stark instruments and hazy memories. Loneliness becomes even more defeating when you can hardly see what’s in front of you.

"And in my head/ There is something rotten there."

Monomania’s endlessly rewarding (and catchy!) title track and lead single throws all of the emotions of the album into a whirlwind of screeching amps and dirt-bike motors, crafting its four song suites into the unholy offspring of the New York Dolls, the Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat” (particularly the part where everything disintegrates into a spiky mess of noise), and the coda of the band’s own “Microcastle”. It spirals past its logical endpoint, where the closing bars end up lasting more than half of the song and Cox’s refrain of the song’s title ends up being trance-like, which sends me in a daze long enough to dive into the obsessions I’ve had in my own life -- my girlfriend, past girlfriends, a rough childhood, virtually anything that could make me feel absolutely worthless to everyone that means anything to me -- before its abrasive finish snaps me out of it. Having a legitimate case of monomania makes it difficult to properly snap out of anything, and the biggest or most recent failures in my life replay in a single frame over and over again, just like Cox chanting “Mono-mono-mania!” for more than three-and-a-half minutes.

Monomania doesn’t exactly distract me from my declining mental health. But while I deeply understand the themes of its songs, none of them are triggers into that awful territory. Like Halcyon Digest before it, listening to Monomania comforts me because I feel there is a songwriter is who speaking directly to me in a way I need to hear. They are friends that have been through my problems, and the sounds of both have individually made me feel better; Halcyon Digest with its dulcet tones, Monomania with things that make me air guitar. Now even the older records signify something deeper to me.

"Have you ever been here/ Or someplace else you could relate to?”

The question Cox asks on the ghostly acoustic ballad “Nitebike” is much like the quandary he finds himself in on “Sleepwalking”: “I’ve been looking for some harmonies/Some words to sing that could really bring/The lonely-hearted some company/All the people that were just like me, yeah.” It’s been no secret that for most of his career, he’s been using music as a way to reach the people who have been out of his grasp in his personal life. He’s even said it himself in no uncertain terms.

By no means is this new emotional ground for an artist. In fact, most artists do the exact same thing; it’s practically the reason why most people even begin practicing art in the first place. As the old saying goes, idle hands are the devil’s plaything, and it’s what distracts us from ourselves that keeps us sane. Making music is what makes Bradford Cox happy, but the thing that provides fulfillment in someone’s life isn’t necessarily the thing they want the most.

I’m okay. I’ve taken the measures to hopefully avoid suicidal depression for the rest of my natural life. Antidepressants have been very kind to me lately. I’ve taken therapy, I’ve kept busy, I have a patient family and patient friends eager to help me keep my mind off of things. There may have been two periods where I couldn’t manage to stop obsessing over the parts of my life I couldn’t control. I cried, I had breakdowns, I had suicidal moments. And then I fought to convince myself of what I would eventually experience. Life is amazing again. I get to tell people things like, “I listen to ‘nocturnal garage’!” Everything is good.

I don’t have to listen to Deerhunter as something that helps me psychologically; I can just listen to them because I want to listen to them. Even though I have a deep emotional attachment to them, I don’t have to think about why. They’re a band that means a lot to me, and that’s all. That’s exactly what bands are supposed to do.