The one thing I took away from the Pink Floyd documentary Live At Pompeii wasn't that they were actually a great live band (they were, but that's not what I'm getting at). No, it was that, before Dark Side of the Moon, they were often criticized for being slaves to their technology. Roger Waters tries to deflect this, but there really was a leap from what had come before to the album they were about to release. Nobody thinks of Dark Side of the Moon as a compromising, sell out-style album yet it made the band far more popular and financially successful than they were before. Their music was still pretty odd, druggy and art rock-y and whatnot, but now it was paired with some instantly recognizable and memorable songs. Now, I'm not trying to compare Microcastle to Pink Floyd's legendary masterpiece, but I am trying to compare a criticism I've had for Deerhunter and a lot of other indie bands who pride themselves on textures, noise, and sheer awesome sound: where's the songs, guys?? Stripped of any electronics, Dark Side of the Moon would still be incredible music. And the same goes for Microcastle.
I used to always cringe when I heard that the new album from a band was more 'pop', for lack of a better term, than their previous releases. But if TV On The Radio's Dear Science taught me anything, it's that sometimes a little levity and polish goes a long way. Often the limits imposed on something force you to be more creative. David Lynch's more mainstream works are just as fascinating as his headtrip/surrealisms because he's got to make a sensical story. With Microcastle, Deerhunter wanted to focus on the 'microstructure' of songwriting and to have shorter, more concise songs, too.
This statement isn't going to make a lot of sense until I explain it, but: I've always suspected that I should love Deerhunter's Cryptograms more than I do. The same can be said for the solo album by Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox, which also came out this year under the name Atlas Sound. Cryptograms and Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel explore the territories of shoegazer, indie rock, ambient, dream-pop, and electronic music to varying extents and account for some of the most thrilling and interesting music of the last two years. Yet it took Microcastle to retroactively sell me on them because, as good as they are, they sometimes struck me as pastiche albums. You hear so many obvious influences on them that you begin to question whether the music is really that good or if it just reminds you so much of music you love you want to give it a pass. Microcastle, too, brings up obvious influences but it proves something that always lay under the psychedelic noise-pop of Cryptograms and the daydream ambient ballads of Let The Blind...: Bradford Cox is an incredible songwriter. After Dark Side of the Moon, no one thought of Pink Floyd as the lava lamp soundtrack/weird sound effects band. After Microcastle, no one will think of Deerhunter as only the shoegazer/dream pop lovers that they are. As thrilling as the guitar assault of Cryptograms was, as mesmerizing as the electronic textures of Let The Blind... was, they still had incredible songs under the hood.
The best way to describe Microcastle is to say that it's Deerhunter's 60s album. It still maintains their trademark sound of My Bloody Valentine meets Sonic Youth-at-their-druggiest meets experimental 70s pop ala Brian Eno and David Bowie. Now, though, they've peeled back a layer of experimentalism and let the songs breath. Even at its heaviest and noisiest, Microcastle is a pop album...though that's a relative concept. Play this for the average listener and it would still be druggy, noisey, and/or weird. As for my, the first time I heard the album I thought it was oddly plain. But I was mistaking restraint and an attention to moment-to-moment detail for what initially struck me as the band removing all the cool shoegazer and krautrock stuff. Whatever your initial impression may be, after a couple spins the hooks and sheer effortlessness of Microcastle completely win you over. And when I say it's their 60s album I mean it in terms of the pop edge of the thing as much as I do the production. If the songs of Cryptograms sounded like a dozen guitars layered on top of each other, Microcastle sounds like something that was recorded on an old fashioned four-or-eight-track tape machine. To put it another way, when the patented Deerhunter walls of sound crowd around you on this album, it serves the song and it sounds like it's being played live instead of processed and dropped on top of other tracks via ProTools.
If the opening track--with its slow descending guitar melody--sounds like something that could've easily fit on Cryptograms, then the next track 'Agoraphobia' lets you know what kind of album this'll really be. Written by one of the band's guitarists, it's downright melodic and classicist, recalling some long lost 80s art-pop band you've never heard of. 'Never Stops', with its repetitive-but-not-in-a-bad-way structure, demonstrates the strength of Bradford Cox's songwriting skill, adding layers of guitar squall on the chorus before stripping back down to the simple backing without missing a beat. The title track is a minimalist solo lament by Cox with only a guitar to keep him company until the 2:25 mark, when the drums kick in and we have a ripping rock song that reminds me of a slightly slowed down version of Brian Eno's 'Needles In The Camel's Eye.' Piano is used to haunting effect on 'Green Jacket', while the closer 'Twilight At Carbon Lake' has the same slow jam arpeggio style as Radiohead's 'A Wolf At The Door' but ends with an astonishing guitar climax that is Deerhunter at their shoegazer best. Perhaps the album's best song is the downright twangy 'Saved By Old Times', which borrows acoustic guitar, what sounds like a 12 string Rickenbacker, and a galloping chorus from the best Beatles song circa 1965 never written. Oh, and it's got a bizarre sound collage around the two minute mark that somehow works.
Really, though, what I find most impressive about Microcastle is how much I keep finding to love about it. The general idea is that difficult/experimental albums should reward repeat listening, but this album is great example to the contrary. It's Deerhunter's most accessible and 'pop' album yet, and while that's still a relative concept, Microcastle is all the more incredible for having such depth. Every song has some detail or hook that'll peek your interest on the next listen and, like Cryptograms, it still all holds together like a cohesive work. Without a doubt in my mind, Microcastle is a fantastic album and the best thing Bradford Cox and company have done to date. Essential listening for anyone wondering whether all of us indie rock/music obsessives are full of it or not.