It’s amazing what a band can do when they have something epic in mind and only a shoestring budget to execute it with. Take Deerhunter, an Atlanta quintet that went in to the studio a few years ago with the intention to make a grand statement, only to have the sessions end in turmoil from a number of technical and personal dramas as well as a limited amount of financial resources to help keep the project afloat.
Understanding that they needed to press on in order to make their creative statement, and understanding that their bank accounts hadn’t grow at all since they first started recording, Deerhunter went back into the studio for a another attempt to complete their second album.
Because of their monetary limitations, much of Cryptograms was recorded “on the fly.” With only a few days of studio time at their disposal, every miscue, flubbed note, and mistake was captured. And every inch of tape was used: you can actually hear the recording tape run out of “Red Ink,” the final song of side one.
Which is appropriate, as Cryptograms is essentially two different sides anyway. Side one is the aforementioned “creative statement” with its lengthy forays into the ambient realm and enough droning imagery to keep a Flying Saucer Attack fan like myself in a Dilaudid nod for days.
It would be testing for anyone who requires some immediate gratification from their stereo. The piece ebbs-and-flows with haunting electrickery, and leader Brandon Cox finds his own vocals manipulated with robotic treatments. All of the elements take their own sweet time to develop; it is, after all, a testament to their own perseverance that the record saw the light of day to begin with. The listener’s job is to find the appropriate time to settle down with it and allow the long-player to unfold completely.
Side two is primarily an echo-laded Elephant 6 affair, which doesn’t mean that it feels out of place here, but it certainly strengthens the breathtaking dissonance that was the first thirty minutes of the album. The record’s second half is, for sure, the most accessible and the point where you might hear a selection on your local, low-wattage student radio station. It too was recorded quickly (in a different session), but without the storyline regarding the album’s first half.
Addressing this: Cryptograms is by no means the second coming of “>Loveless. There are moments that may resemble it, and the financial damage incurred during the making of both of these records is similar (although Loveless broke Creation Records‘ bank while Cryptograms mainly impacted the band’s own purse), it is obvious that there is a world of difference between Kevin Shields’ studio perfectionism and Deerhunter’s day-long ambient opera. Both records are rewarding, but one of them can only be used as a reference for which others are measured.
You don’t need to guess to figure out which album that would be.
For Deerhunter, they’ll have to endure yet another story-worthy tale in order to build upon Cryptograms‘ striking development. Such a story may provide enough copy for a great press release, but to suffer through another year of drama to produce an album of this magnitude is enough to make even the strongest of wills to consider an easier option.
To answer Brandon Cox on “Strange Light” (“What direction should we choose / We’re lost and still confused”), the road Deerhunter needs to take to make an album as gratifying as Cryptograms may be the one that proves to be their toughest journey when it’s over.