Raving Underwater

Deerhunter at the Crescent Ballroom. Phoenix, August 2013.

Sometimes it’s easy to tell when a band will be worth seeing live. But the first time I saw Deerhunter, I wasn’t expecting much. While I had long enjoyed their albums, they seemed too dependent on a particular “processed” sound to translate to a concert venue. Was I ever wrong. When my friend suddenly took me by the hand and led me towards the stage, my critical distance disintegrated in seconds.

Afterwards, though, while she and I were discussing the concert on the hundred-mile drive home, I found it almost impossible to articulate why the band had won me over so thoroughly. Less showy than Sonic Youth; lacking the rush to total oblivion that made My Bloody Valentine’s performances so overwhelming; too idiosyncratic to sustain the steady art rock groove of Stereolab, I couldn’t help but think of Deerhunter as a decent substitute for something I liked better. Yet there was no denying that I had been transported by the concert to an extent rare for someone my age.

That’s why I vowed to see the band again when they next came to my state, to see whether the magic of that night back in November, 2010 had more to do with my mood than the concert itself. And this past Friday, nearly three years later, I finally got my chance. As luck would have it, my friend from that first show was there with me again. I once again had to spend nearly two hours getting there. Circumstances had aligned perfectly to enable a reasonable comparison.

Still, the stress of the past year, together with my mixed feelings about having to relive that special night, had me feeling agitated and, as a consequence, ironic. Even though I’d been looking forward to the concert for months, I was feeling closed off from the possibility of bliss. But when Deerhunter started to play, I once again was mesmerized.

To be sure, the band isn’t much to look at. While not quite as statue-like as My Bloody Valentine, Deerhunter could never be described as outgoing or athletic. And although front man Bradford Cox was wearing a black Meet the Beatles wig and a tacky leopard-print smoking jacket to make Rod Stewart blush, the effect was actually to downplay the natural eccentricity that comes from being a tall, distressingly skinny person beset with Marfan’s Syndrome. Nor was his stage presence magnetic. To the extent that he talked between songs, it was mostly to complain about the feedback in his microphone. Yet none of that mattered.

This time around, I did my best to take mental notes on what was pleasing me and why. What I eventually came to realize is that Deerhunter’s greatness inheres in precisely those qualities that had me marking them down as a substitute for something better. By not going as far as they could in any particular direction, they create a sense that they are holding something impressive in reserve. If some live acts are all about the expenditure of energy — The Who, the Rolling Stones or Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in their heydays — Deerhunter’s gift is to leave it unrealized, potential that is waiting to be made actual.

Part of the reason for this, I realized, is that their best live songs manage to sustain a delicate balance between propulsion and restraint. The drums often verge on the relentless precision of Krautrock’s famed Motorik rhythm. The guitars and Cox’s distinctively altered vocals, by contrast, seem either to be struggling to catch up or putting on the brakes because they’ve pushed too rashly ahead. While this impression can certainly be discerned on record, it is far more pronounced in concert.

As someone who prioritizes lyrics — I still consider Pavement to be the apex of alternative rock — I am normally annoyed when I can’t make out the words to a song. For some reason, though, Cox’s refusal to make himself clear, both by mumbling and by routing his voice through effects that further muddy them with echo, appeals to me. So does the noise that seeps into the instrumentation, even in quiet passages. Maybe it’s that he manages to convey the impression that language always misses its mark. It’s surely no coincidence that two of the songs on Deerhunter’s first — and rarely heard — album are titled “Language/Violence” and “Adorno”?

Towards the end of the concert, I turned to my friend to offer the pithy assessment I’d been working on since Deerhunter came on. “They sound like they’re playing underwater. But at a rave.” Although there’s definitely a hallucinogenic quality to their music, their trip never loses sight of its destination. It’s simultaneously modest, a testament to what can be accomplished by reining in excess, and self-assured. You can immerse yourself without ever feeling uncomfortably wet.


Photograph courtesy of the author

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