Saved by Old Times: Deerhunter’s “Microcastle,” Ten Years Later
In 2008, Atlanta’s preeminent indie rock band made a record to become more than just that—but only tentatively so.
Deerhunter’s best songs make desolate feelings sound transcendental. There are times where Bradford Cox simply lets go of conventional language and uses his angelic voice to harmonize with the crescendos spilling out around him. It’s blissful, but also otherworldly, like floating away with no clear promise of coming back down.
Ten years ago, Deerhunter released Microcastle, perhaps the single record in their formidable discography where their penchant for ambient drifts and ferocious noise rock managed to merge and cohabitate. They recorded and arranged the majority of the album in Nicolas Vernhes’s Rare Book Room studios in NYC, a space that also captured the sounds of some of underground rock’s most notable releases of the past few decades: The War On Drugs’ Lost in the Dream, Wild Nothing’s Nocturne, Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca, and, more recently, Flasher’s quickly ascending Constant Image.
At that time, Cox, guitarist Lockett Pundt, drummer Moses Archuleta, and bassist Joshua Fauver had a distinct vision for Microcastle: to create a record that expounded upon the band’s pop sensibilities while maintaining the sinister and psychedelic weirdness of its predecessor, 2007’s Cryptograms.
“I want to make songs that a wider, younger audience can get behind,” Cox says in a Pitchfork mini-doc during the recording of Microcastle. “A kid who is just now getting over My Chemical Romance or something, or just now thinking, ‘I want to hear something just a little more experimental.’”
In many ways, it mirrors another underground rock classic that attempted to balance immediacy with experimentation: Sonic Youth’s 1988 classic Daydream Nation, released nearly thirty years ago. And even with those accessible intentions, Microcastle still requires patience and study from the listener. It’s swirling, surreal rock where themes of dejection and self-loathing hang heavy, even when masked by Cox’s beautiful voice. Even at its loudest, Microcastle sounds more freaked-out than confident.
There is a bounty of classic Deerhunter material on Microcastle, with perhaps the most obvious highlight being the epic “Nothing Ever Happened.” Fauver, who left the band shortly before Monomania in 2013, wrote the majority of the song and brought it to the band to finish in studio. It remains his greatest legacy within the group.
Microcastle’s other landmark track is “Agoraphobia,” a gentle, cooing ballad written and sung by Pundt, with lyrics by Cox. The song was recorded as a dreamy, smothering ode to being buried alive as a perverse kink, but a video of Deerhunter’s performance recorded just this May at Best Kept Secret Fest reveals a compelling but rather baffling transformation. Cox, who normally takes the songs’ vocals in live settings, sings with the low grit of The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas, eventually gripping the mic stand to belt the lyrics. Bolstered further by the tighter playing of Deerhunter’s current lineup, the current “Agoraphobia” seems to have honest to God swagger, a far cry from the suffocating wooziness of the original.
If that performance is any indication, ten years on, Deerhunter have grown out of creating purposefully cryptic, winding albums like Microcastle (and Weird Era Cont., the bonus disc released in conjunction with the record). That’s a good thing. Like a lot of underground rock bands, time has granted Deerhunter room to make their ambitions clearer, more distinct.
In 2018, with poptimism still riding high, tactics to shake off a certain strain of fans who aren’t interested in hearing forced ambience is, sadly, one of Microcastle’s greatest tells of its age.
That isn’t to suggest they’ve lost their sense of adventure. Their last three albums have varied pretty wildly in sound. Hell, 2015’s Fading Frontier even contained genuine traces of hope and contentment in Cox’s lyrics, with songs like “Breaker” and “Living My Life” sounding nearly pastoral. If anything, the band seems more comfortable, both with themselves and their audience.
Going back to that Pitchfork interview referenced above, there’s a cringey—and telling—moment when Fauver describes the slightly droning three-song suite in the middle of Microcastle as “necessary.” “Whether it loses people or not, it’s kind of the process of weeding out once it gets to the middle of the record,” Fauvre says. “I mean, it has to be there. It’s not optional, I don’t feel.”
Though certainly adding to Microcastle’s spooky vibe, that suite—consisting of “Calvary Scars,” “Green Jacket,” and “Activa”—has always felt like a purposeful retread into the band’s murkier past, and a sleeperhold on the rest of the record’s momentum. Fauver’s comment is a relic of a different era, and gets at the paradoxical nature of indie rock. It’s supposedly the strain of rock that has shaken off the bloated nature of classic rock while also subverting and opening up the dogmatic, primitive principles of its punk forebears. It’s rock music, but for artists—people who get it.
In 2018, with poptimism still riding high, tactics to shake off a certain strain of fans who aren’t interested in hearing forced ambience is, sadly, one of Microcastle’s greatest tells of its age. There are other, far better moments within Microcastle that fuse the band’s artier, weirder ambitions within actual songs.
Take the record’s title track. After about two minutes of spacey balladry, it takes a thrilling hairpin turn into a full-band assault, a perfect usage of the Pixies’ trademark quiet/loud dynamic. Or consider the swelling “Saved by Old Times,” featuring a passage of gleefully unhinged spoken-word by Black Lips’ Cole Alexander, which was shoddily beamed in through an iChat session while Deerhunter were recording in NYC.
In many ways, Microcastle still stands as Deerhunter’s creative peak. Their subsequent records have since focused on a singular mood or theme to great results (2010’s nostalgic Halcyon Digest is still probably their best overall album), but none have the specific harrowing, spacey ambition of Microcastle. On it, Deerhunter embedded some of their darkest songwriting within immediate performances, resulting in a sound they’ve only continued to sharpen a decade later. Their weird era continues. FL