“On Deerhunter’s Cryptograms and the Idea of a Rock Album as a Reverse Full Canon Slide Show”

Now, by “canon” here, I of course mean a totality, or history — the genus within a particular art form which is streamlined to essential immortality.

Deerhunter, judging by the bulbous length of the article on their second album, Cryptograms (2007), on Wikipedia, is a force in indie rock that gathers a pretty considerable amount of attention. Still, they somehow seem to get lost amongst the shuffle, more times than not, and are almost never considered the “elite” indie band (that epithet often gravitating to The National or Arcade Fire, to name a few). Part of the reason for this could be, of course, the explicit homosexuality of its primary lead singer Bradford Cox, and certain lyrical themes (“Memory Boy”). I’ll tell you what: they were definitely the best band at Lollapalooza ’09. 

Another thing I like about Deerhunter is that, amazingly, “Strange Lights,” among others, is sung by their ulterior singer and songwriter, Lockett Pundt, who also spearheads the excellent side project of Lotus Plaza. Both his voice and his songwriting style seem almost exactly identical to those of Bradford Cox. The possibility of these two guys being preternaturally destined to be bandmates would seem, furthermore, to be emphasized by an account detailed in Wikipedia of the inspiration behind “Strange Lights.” This episode, basically, is a dream Pundt had about when he and the rest of his bandmates “‘walked into the sun together, knowing it was going to kill us’” [1]. 

Also, just listening to the whole album Cryptograms, it’s impossible to overstate, just represents such a varied, exhaustive trek through a dizzying multitude of styles, and even worlds, or so it seems. On one hand, I must say, this band doesn’t really strike me as the type to go into the studio and attempt to write a particular TYPE of album, or concept album, as it were. That is, despite being organized with a curious punctiliousness and almost categorical neurosis (pretty much all of the odd-numbered tracks are ambient instrumentals and the even-numbered lyrical pop), the whole thing is so loose, so rhythmic and so off-the-cuff-sounding, that it makes more sense for Cox to just have decided this at the last second — to incorporate their one long ambient jam [2] not by one unwieldy track but by alternated segments between actual songs.

In the title I mention the concept of an album as a “canon slide show” and what exactly I mean by this is that it’s able to basically act as a lesson in the history of rock, by its very components. Just a few examples I’m talking about here are the “funk” aspects of the title track and its hypnotic, running bass line. From there we go to the all-out, relentless screech of “Lake Somerset,” which siphons elements of both hardcore punk and noise rock with its deranged vocals that are more barked than sung, and its blitzkrieg of dissonant guitar sound [3].

We’re walking backwards through the lineage of rock and roll, now, because that’s just how the muse divined things, so the next thing we get to is the 1970’s, manifest here in the “prog rock” of “Octet.”  This song vies very strongly for favorite track on the album, to me (though we all know in reality it’s “Spring Hall Convert”), one thing I especially like about it so much is its ability to channel a vibe of late-era Pink Floyd, in the spirit of the David Gilmour tracks “Take it back” and “Poles apart.” There’s an undeniable element on this expansive album centerpiece of that stoned, summery post-beach type of scene portrayed there.

Now, part of why I’m writing this post is that Deerhunter, for how rewarding and gratifying their music can be, really stupefies me. Without question, they respect the construction of a whole rock LP, taking care with their sequencing and working toward ensuring that the album as a whole possesses a flow and an overall shape, to an extent. Their record after Cryptograms, for that matter, Microcastle (2008), contains the very puzzling structure of four absolutely dissolute, percussion-free tracks falling at five through eight, before exploding back into the world of rhythmic rock for the glorious “Nothing Ever Happened,” of course. 

Cryptograms does something strikingly similar, obviously eliminating the idea that the band ordered these cuts at random. There’s something systematic going on here and, interestingly, with Cryptograms, I believe it to correspond with a very specific phenomenological way we have of listening to music, which would dictate the immediate absorption of the heavy and the cathartic, giving way then of course to Beatles pop, the structural foundation of rock as a form of music. Interestingly, the last two songs on the album, “Hazel St” and “Heatherwood,” are the only two cuts on the entire thing that contain real, bona fide “choruses.” 

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[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cryptograms_(album).

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[2] Wikipedia also details how Cryptograms was recorded across two separate sessions, one of which contained solely that instrumental, ambient material and the other all of the organized, vocalized songs.

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[3] I realize I’m leaving “metal” out of this conversation — what I’m assembling here is basically the exact evolution of rock and roll itself, with most heavy metal before 1990 perhaps materializing as heavy runk rock, and all those 10-minute songs with tom rides and palm muting maybe more of a novelty than a key cornerstone of the genre’s evolution. 

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194 thoughts on ““On Deerhunter’s <em>Cryptograms</em> and the Idea of a Rock Album as a Reverse Full Canon Slide Show”

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