Deerhunter prove again that they have far from exhausted their potential.
It’s nearly impossible to pin down Deerhunter. From the moment they leapfrogged from the inauspicious, murky noise of their largely forgotten debut to the laser-focused ambient scuzz of Cryptograms, the band has consistently prodded the boundaries of their sound even when they settle into a groove. So unpredictable is Bradford Cox’s muse that the mildly confused reception that greeted 2013’s Monomania seems, in retrospect, misplaced. Sure, it marked a major break from the largely unified dream pop of their previous trio of albums, but in so doing it also represented the quintessential expression of Deerhunter’s slippery identity, using various guises to air out Cox’s frustrations and desires in arguably their most paradoxically direct form.
But even that album still had the requisite volume and petulance to mark it as a Deerhunter record. Fading Frontier, by comparison, may be the biggest left turn of the band’s career, one that matches the anger and dissociative, persona-based lyrics of the last LP with a sense of contentment and maturity that, so far, have been foreign to their music. In fairness, “contentment” here is a relative term, one that must wrestle with Cox’s inclination toward the macabre and provocative. “All the Same” opens the album with clean guitar riffs and an elegant organ drone that sets a gentle pace challenged by Cox’s impressionistic snatches of claustrophobia and conflict, peaking with the Hemingway-esque one-sentence story “My friend’s dad got bored/ Changed his sex and had no more.” Cox’s halting, calm delivery initially maximizes the loss this character endures, but then he spins into a positive, urging, “You should take your handicaps, channel them and feed them back/ ‘Til they become your strengths.” Cox’s character loses everything but gains a sense of self previously lacking.
The notion that isolation is the price of self-discovery and understanding is something of a recurring element of the album, but where Cox used to project melancholy and flashes of anger in his loneliness, here he occasionally touches on a Zen-like peace. The spacious “Take Care” may connote a graveyard vibe with its gothic synths and talk of corpses, but it also encourages the listener to persevere through this horror. Even if the hand that Cox urges you to raise is “crippled,” it at least has the strength to wave goodbye, though it’s hard to tell whether one is sending off one’s hangups or life itself.
The wry humor that ran over Monomania returns in a more concise form, often betraying Cox at both his most self-loathing and most self-effacing. Closer “Carrion” makes an extended pun out of its title, casting the singer as nothing but rotting meat, even as the sheer exaggeration marks out what might have been typical indie whinging as a put-on. Even when Cox broaches the subject of being hit by a car, as he does on “Breaker,” he does so with a mordant irony, not only playing around with the phrase “Christ or credit” as a means of paying one’s karmic balance but in the direct summary and analysis of events contained in “Jack-knifed/ On the side-street crossing/ I’m still alive/ And that’s something.”
This blend of the stark and confessional with the cagey typifies the music of Fading Frontier, routinely flecking the more straightforward compositions with electronic touches and contrapuntal tones that complicate the airy bliss of the scrubbed guitars. The gentle “Living My Life” sets skittish beats under soaring synth patterns to underscore the nervous energy that drives Cox’s tale of going off the grid and undermine the track’s sense of liberation. Lyrically, “Breaker” may directly confront Cox’s recent scare, but the decision to pair the frontman with guitarist Lockett Pundt in their first duet displaces the intimacy of the lyrics by complicating their point of view. “Leather and Wood” completely ducks whatever sound the album could be said to have, offering a challenging arrangement of scraping chimes, somberly tapped piano keys and hiccuping electronic noises that sounds like an aural sketch of post-apocalyptic life.
But Deerhunter saves the wildest sonic experiments for the two best tracks. “Snakeskin,” the lead single for the record, is unindicative of the rest of the LP (as if anything on it could be said to fully relate to the others). But this is also a total aberration within the entire Deerhunter catalog, a piece of squirming white-boy funk that foregrounds Josh McKay’s bass and Moses Archuleta’s fill-heavy drums to the point that they become more hard rock than R&B. This is funk the way Led Zeppelin used to do it, only where that band recklessly charged through how awkward a fit the genre was for them, Deerhunter acknowledge their halting lankiness and reimagine funk around these stiff-limbed parameters. Hot on its heels comes Pundt’s lyrical contribution to the record, the gorgeous, droning “Ad Astra.” Pundt’s lyrics and vocals have always been a more grounded, stereotypically indie version of Cox’s idiosyncratic vision, but if “Breaker” fuses the two until they become a hive mind, “Ad Astra” suggests that the mind-meld rubbed off on the guitarist. He brings a level of storytelling to the track that finally shows more than tells. Combined with the strangely logical campfire electronica that rumbles underneath, Pundt’s lyrics and earnest vocals may well surpass those of his previous standout, “Desire Lines.”
Even before the record made its way to critics, Cox was giving interviews cautioning people against reading too heavily into the record for references to his accident, and he’s most likely right. The influence map he released recently plots that event as one of many points in a swirling morass of artistic touchstones, sense-memories and locations that informed the fluid, haunted but ultimately resigned and accepting mood. If anything, the most pervasive fear expressed in the record is not of dying too young but living to be infirm and trapped in an old folks home. In “Basement Scene,” off 2010’s Halcyon Digest, Cox summarized the predicament of all brightly burning rock stars with the instant reassessment in “I don’t wanna get old/ I wanna get old,” and that complicated and contradictory phobia still informs the artist’s lyrics. But for the first time, Cox sounds as if he is not sweating things, and if Fading Frontier is far too jittery and unpredictable to count as truly serene album, it does show the band surprisingly comfortable with the idea of already graduating to elder statesman status. Don’t get too comfortable, though; with yet another curveball in their manic discography, Deerhunter prove again that they have far from exhausted their potential.