We’re in a weird punk rock moment. There are a lot of things to be pissed about, yet almost too many outlets for expressing discontent. Righteous fury mingles with tossed-off snark, actively competes against it for eyeballs, blurring everything towards meaninglessness. Unplugging entirely seems like the radical’s move. But how to do that, even? Should you document your non-participation? Is it more punk rock to clearly give a fuck about something, and try to cut through the noise to express it? Or to make it clear that you couldn’t, and make a show of drifting off to some better world that you made yourself?
Savages care intensely about not being misunderstood. The four-piece band from London have been incredibly deliberate about presenting a succinct, written world view to go with their bracing music. They are disdainful of empty online chattering, labeling it the destroyer of focus and a leech of personal power. They are stridently anti-sexism and pro sex, going so far as offering to help listeners tap into the strength of their “erotic life.” They’ve pulled off a neat trick, putting their technology-suspicious statement of purpose squarely in the middle of our glowing screens, available through multiple channels. There’s an irony in the posted commandments that their live shows shouldn’t be experienced through camera phones being dutifully shared through social media. The band doesn’t acknowledge that they are aware of the disconnect. “Having desconstructed everything, we should be thinking about putting everything back together.” Enough with being conflicted, they say, let’s be combative. We’re tired of listening to everybody, but we’re willing to speak for you!
Silence Yourself is the band’s clear-eyed debut. It’s not quite radical sounding if you’re well acquainted with post-punk, but it is a sharp example of the form. While not distractingly imitative, you can’t hear Jehnny Beth sing and not think of Siouxsie Sioux, unless you’ve never heard the Banshees’ singer at all. But the sound is tighter and less lacy than high goth. Black, yeah, but not black velvet. Their lyrics carry a surreal mix of sexuality and menace that’s careful not to cower. They present nightmare imagery, lovers missing eyes, figures sometimes absent a whole face. But it’s not a waking drug haze so much as the stone sober moment you shoot up in bed, sweaty and unsettled. Crisp, upfront drum and bass give shape to continually abrasive guitar noise.
As coherent as the record is, its ice-cold textures and semi-vague lyrical terrain do leave some questions. How much anxiety over tech saturation does their music actually convey? How is it specific to now, as opposed to the Thatcherite industrial blight angst of the early 80s? Is telling people what you stand for the same as making your music clear enough to express it without further explanation? Can primal anger ever be delivered through calculated emphasis? They’re trying, at least.
Bradford Cox has certainly thought about the way his music is presented. He’s spent a decade doodling “digital EP” covers, arranging hard drives full of song sketches into numbered containers for public gorging. He’s been both the victim and beneficiary of the sort of Internet noise to which Savages set themselves in direct opposition. Shaky first wave camera phones captured his early, bloodstained frock phase, increasing the band’s profile enormously. His constant blog babbling became the fodder for dozens of quick-hit sensational news bites, an early sign of an era where indie-rock coverage slowly morphed into celebrity gossip. Now, when he freaks out and plays “My Sharona” for an hour straight at a small midwestern gig, no one is going to miss the stunt.
Cox talks so much, on so many wild, self-contradicting tangents, that using his words to ascribe deeper meaning to Deerhunter’s music is almost impossible. He certainly hasn’t drawn a deliberate political bent onto his music’s dreamy longing. Speaking about the band, his focus is almost always the trainspotter’s view of rock history, whether they are distinctly American enough, whether he’s paying attention to the right bands, following in the right footsteps. He’s hiding in plain sight.
In a recent Pitchfork interview, Cox flirted with articulating an artistic credo. “I’m not interested in punk as an aesthetic and I certainly don't give a shit what some hardcore kid thinks of our record. It's a fucking arm-wrestling match, and it's pathetic. My idea of punk is not being interested in what other people think of punk." So, it’s a vision almost entirely rooted in individual expression. It’s one that doesn’t care about articulating something bigger for a presumed audience. As he’s tried to maintain all along, his lyrics are extemporaneously written without instructive motive. He barely even cares if he’s speaking for himself.
Deerhunter’s new record, Monomania, is their first in years that hasn’t felt like the next rung in a ladder of focused revision. There are barely any traces of the motorik groove that was an early signature, the precision that’s separated proper full-band material from Cox’s more formless Atlas Sound stuff. (It lacks the zoned in bass-playing of founding member Josh Fauver, who left the band ahead of this recording.) 2010’s Halcyon Digest kept clear of that low-end too, but compensated with a sort of crystalline wispiness. Hitting the prettiness ceiling, this record retreats to the basement. It’s their least ambient release, enjoyably rough-edged and spontaneous. It doesn’t feel dangerous, exactly, but its messy on purpose.
It meets a stated “American rock n’ roll band” goal well enough, definitely looser and less forceful than Savages’ arch, seething British-ness. A song like “Pensicola”, set in Florida and sounding like a more respectful version of the Velvet Underground goofing on country music, is about as American as it gets. It’s less painstakingly sequenced than their other records. Lockett Pundt adds a typically pretty song that could be taken off it and put on another LP without much effect. Is there a greater satirical significance to using rebel 50s Americana as camp? Meaning is obscured, undermined, or non-existent. Do the references to leather coats and junk yards, the bursts of motorcycle noise tell us anything, except that Cox is feeling tragic like he was Marlon Brando? Is it playing into the gag to ask what exactly he’s rebelling against?
The two records present two different ideas of punk rock. One casts a rock band as a vessel for something bigger, the tip of the spear guiding specific resentments and frustrations. It assumes that their pain is yours. The other views a band as an extended expression of lingering obsession, more concerned with mood than meaning. It broadcasts one guy’s ennui as all that matters. One comes packaged with a lot of talk about shutting up. The other rambles on without worrying too much about what it’s saying. Both orbit the same specific unease. Connectivity was supposed to help, but it doesn’t. We can talk, but who’s listening? What do we do about all this loneliness?