As I set out to write an article entirely devoted to “Monomania,” the fantastic song from Deerhunter’s new rock album of the same title, I found myself remembering everything I hate about the kind of pretentious rock writing I had set out to do (and don’t worry, this article is still going to get pretentious soon enough). But then I remembered the greatest piece of music criticism I’ve ever heard, which is a remark my friend Bryan made regarding a song on Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: “Man, this is the kind of song you listen to on the way to work and on the way back.”
This comment applies to “Monomania:” I enjoy playing it, loudly and repeatedly, in my headphones both on the way to work and on the way back home from work. Other songs this comment has applied to relatively recently include “Evil Eye” by Heavy Cream, “Get Free” by Major Lazer, “Back Up Plan” by Big Boi, and “Shut Up I Am Dreaming of Places Where Lovers Have Wings” by Sunset Rubdown. I’m not sure what exactly makes a to-and-from-work song. Looking at this list, the tempos vary, although none are exceedingly fast or slow, and I would characterize the melodies and lyrics of each as infectious, but those are the only similarities, and they are vague and broad.
The song begins with an industrial groan and cymbals crashing, like something mechanical opening up underneath the rest of the album, no moment on which is nearly as dread-inducing as that single sound. From there, the song is basically just an intro and an outro, and I think that is what I love most about it. The lyrics in the first half are lovely and haunting: “Send my heart to the sea / Oh, the empty sea.” Cox’s voice is garbled and the instruments overpower it. The song slows down, the guitar mellows out, and suddenly Cox is just repeating “Mono, monomania” over and over -- the second and only other section has kicked in before you’ve gotten a chance to appreciate the first. “The mono, monomania” segment begins about two minutes in and continues for another three minutes or so. The band eventually overpowers Cox's vocals completely and the song devolves into noise for another thirty seconds or so.
My high school Music Theory teacher would squeal with pony-tailed rage if he knew how much of the subject I’ve forgotten, but I do remember that the final chord in the progression of the song’s second part resolves back up to the first chord, so you keep wanting to hear the progression over and over and ultimately begin writing articles about it. Therefore, it’s a perfect reflection of its speaker’s insane solipsistic obsessiveness, or monomania.
A monomaniac is obviously a solid choice for a literary character. Captain Ahab, Raskolnikov, and the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” are all monomaniacs. In a beautiful, very abstract and personal album review of “Monomania,” Thomas Moore recently described a first-person narrator’s sad and drug-addled trip to New York for most of the review. The song’s second section is also the point at which, in the Fallon performance above, Cox walks off stage and meanders around Studio 6B, so overcome by his character’s monomania. What is he so obsessed with? I submit it is obsession itself.