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Deerhunter:: Cryptograms (Album Review)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the end of the world. Not the literal destruction of the Earth, per se, as millions of years remain before the sun expands into a red dwarf and engulfs our planet in a massive inferno. What I mean is the end of humankind. Having just seen Alfonso Cuarón’s excellent film, Children of Men, and having just read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, my mind can’t help but be drawn to the near future and its dystopian possibilities, especially the idea of a reproductive cataclysm that has dominated recent artistic apocalyptic visions. On Cryptograms, Deerhunter, a quintet from Atlanta, creates a pervasive sense of inevitable doom across this fascinating and fractured effort. Does album foresee the end of the world? Perhaps, with nearly half of the album filled with ominous sounds and premonitions of our future.

Cryptograms, Deerhunter’s second album and first for Kranky, opens with an intriguing mix of electronic pulses, blips, sirens, and the sound of rushing water. This creepy and disconcerting opening vignette sets the tone for the album, and flows seamlessly into “Cryptograms,” the first full song. The initial seven tracks alternate between instrumentals filled with chimes, drones, and lulling noise, as on “Red Ink,” and the cruel poetics and noir guitar pickings of Bradford Cox on “Spring Hall Convert” and “Lake Sommerset.” Then things change. The poppy, peppy, and catchy “Strange Lights” seems out of place following all of the rubble and gloom, and disrupts the mood. We soon find that the second half of the album, starting with “Strange Lights,” is starkly different from the first half, with less ambience and more guitar-driven tracks, along with ruminations on adolescence and loss. Each half of the album was recorded in one day, respectively, and the moods are vastly different on the respective sides. But perhaps the lesson in this dichotomy is that even amidst the doom there is still hope, or at least memories of a time when there was.

Cox’s vocals, when present, are heavily processed and diluted, which creates an unsettling emotion emanating from our narrator. The album is full of flat notes and instruments, pounding bass lines, textured sounds, and enigmatic samples to create a dreary world where “the end of time was: no sound/ I had no friends/ I would benefit from no other kids/ I had no dreams.” The production is engineered to evoke shadowy images in your mind, and the album ends with the simple yet ominous mantra: “was not seen again.”

This is a dark, dystopian album—most consistently so through the first seven tracks. The best moments are, admittedly, the ambient and other instrumental material, though the album as an entity does a frighteningly good job of creating a landscape of sad faces struggling through crowded streets with little hope for the future. This is not a complete or coherent narrative of despair, as the two album halves don’t particularly work with one another—it really feels like two EPs sewn together. But the effort is more than evocative enough to scare the hell out of you, at least for a little while.