Deerhunter - Wash Off
Final track from “Fluorescent Grey EP” (2007)
In 2005, Bradford Cox asked Lockett Pundt, his best friend from high school, to join his band, which was called Deerhunter. Deerhunter had put out a record of angular, nervous punk earlier that year, purportedly self-titled but with the words Turn It Up Faggot on the spine, as a four-piece, with Cox singing and backing up Colin Mee on guitar, Josh Fauver on bass, and Moses Archuleta on drums. Pundt got on board, layering huge reverb washes of nostalgic guitar haze over the rest of the band’s rhythmic punk drive so Cox could experiment with ghostly vocal loops, and Deerhunter came into its own fully actualized potential as the Southern Gothic rock band.
Deerhunter took two tries to record and finally released in January 2007 a record called Cryptograms and, in May of that year, an EP of cast-off tracks called Fluorescent Grey. The rest is legendary history. People started talking about a band of five kids from Atlanta who (pretty accurately) styled themselves “ambient punk” to the point where you couldn’t escape their names (particulary Cox’s, perennially the eccentric and outspoken frontman) if you wanted to. Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs started describing Deerhunter’s live performances as akin to a religious experience. Cox started intimately blogging and took to wearing thrift store wedding dresses and chewing fake blood packets on stage, stroking Pundt’s face and/or breaking his guitar mid-song at this show, rambling for a half hour after the rest of the band had left the stage at that show, receiving fake blowjobs at that show… There was this sense around Deerhunter of something that was infinitely compelling and very dangerous, something that would wrap you up inescapably into it if you stood too close. Appropriately, the sense that pervades Cryptograms and Fluorescent Grey is one of inevitable trainwreck, that ultimate massively destructive and disgustingly grotesque end that awaits everything and everyone, and what made Deerhunter so compelling in those days was that you thought you could see it in them, so you started to see it in yourself.
This is why Cryptograms and Fluorescent Grey, two releases that you really must look at as a cohesive whole, are one of the most massive, self-assured, powerful statements made by any band in the past ten years. This is a Gothic masterpiece of sixteen songs that read like Faulkner or O’Connor short stories – they say, look what is wrong here; look how everything has fallen apart. Look how everything will fall apart, look how we can’t stop it, listen to us try and hold it together. These songs are imagined constructions of memories of some beautiful and terrible youth (terrible because it was beautiful? beautiful because it was terrible?), strung together until they literally disintegrate (“Red Ink” ends with the sound of tape spinning off the reel). Everything is humid and dark. The simple catchy riffs on Pundt’s and Mee’s guitars follow you around from just beyond the glow of the streetlights until they catch you when you’ve stopped checking over your shoulder. These are songs that will haunt you. That is, unquestionably, what they were written to do.
The final track of the set of sixteen is called “Wash Off.” In some respects it is the ultimate Deerhunter song, because it is cold and inscrutable and kind of terrifying sometimes in the way it feels like it’s all around you. The refrain, if you can call it that, is “I was sixteen;” Pundt and Mee play, in the most discordant possible fashion, the rhythm of that vocal line throughout, even in the instrumental sections, so you can never forget it even when it seems like it’s gone away (I bet you never thought something could be chillingly jangly, but that’s what those two do best, at least here); all the while Fauver and Archuleta deliver one of their Kraut-iest, most driving rhythmic interplays. They let everything collapse into this wave of dizzying, abrasive noise that only Fauver’s distorted bassline keeps from utter rhythmlessness (you can feel it coming in how frantic Mee’s guitar gets); they reign it all into an impossibly tense, tightly-wound tiptoe around what’s stirring beneath; they wind it all out into spiraling, off-beat piano chords; it ends.
A long time ago on Deerhunter’s now mostly-defunct blog Cox wrote that “Wash Off” was about a drug-dealing hippie selling him fake acid (“in the parking looooot of myyyyyy hiiiiiiigh schoooooool”) but when you boil it down this is a song, like Deerhunter’s best songs, about being young – about being sixteen, feeling, for the first time, that you were capable of a thousand things, not all of them good, knowing that you were dangerous, that there was something stirring inside that you could channel relatively easily toward destruction, toward the most beautiful terrible end of everything before it’s even begun. After Cryptograms and Fluorescent Grey, Deerhunter started to come at that sense of destructive chaos from somewhere else, somewhere even more terrifying, a place of total control, a place of stunning pop refinement.
Appropriately as its last song, its sixteenth song, “Wash Off” is the punctuation mark on that era of purely chaotic Deerhunter – it comes from that controlled place too. It’s a kind of forcibly refined place, a place of thin but strong veneer, a soundproof glass wall behind which a thousand people are screaming – you can see them but you can’t hear them, but even when you turn around you know they are there. “Wash Off” gives Deerhunter every chance to let each of those careful constructions of coherence and structure they spent all of Cryptograms and Fluorescent Grey cultivating from ruins disintegrate completely, and it is very telling of the band they’ve become that their ability to reign everything back in, even when they’ve let it fall into the void, is what makes this song so chilling, so controlled when it shouldn’t be, when it can’t be – so perfect.
— Genevieve Oliver
(Genevieve previously wrote for OWOB about Architecture in Helsinki)