In finding the loneliness and rage of others, Cox broadens his lyrical palette.
Death has always figured into the work of Bradford Cox, from the spectral bedroom noise of his early Atlas Sound recordings all the way through Deerhunter’s last project, 2015’s Fading Frontier, which was made in the aftermath of the frontman’s serious injury from being struck by a car. Yet the latter album signaled a change from Cox’s previous milieu of haunted, isolated ramblings and self-annihilating musing, with Cox showing a sunnier side after genuinely facing death. In the midst of loosely recounting his experience in “Living My Life,” for example, he sighs “I’m still alive/ And that’s something.”
That more optimistic outlook is sent wayward, however, in Deerhunter’s eighth album, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?. With a new lease on life, Cox gazes outward for the first time and discovers that the world is every bit as miserable as he always felt about his own life. “Death in Midsummer” opens the album on the bright harpsichord of producer and guest musician Cate Le Bon, marking the first time that Deerhunter, a titan of the 2000s indie scene, truly sounds like a stereotypical indie band. Yet amid the chiming notes of the song are lyrics that reflect the suffocating nature of late capitalism. Inspired by an image of murdered factory workers in the Russian Revolution, the song equally applies to current feelings of dead-end labor with lines like “They were in factories/ They are in graves now/ They were in debt to themselves/ And what? Is it paid off now?” The track also references the ecological impact of capitalism in the warped prayer “May God’s will be done/ In these poisoned hills,” a sentiment that recurs in “Element” where “Orange clouds fade up for a toxic view.” If Cox’s earlier material depicted the hollowness of isolation, here he ironically finds a sense of community in the shared sense of desolation.
In finding the loneliness and rage of others, Cox broadens his lyrical palette while remaining fundamentally opaque and just out of reach. The singer directly references the murder of British MP Jo Cox in press notes for “No One’s Sleeping,” which is even sunnier than the opening track as the singer-songwriter approaches violence in England by a roundabout Kinks reference, noting “The village green/ Is nocturnal.” Cox and Lockett Pundt’s noisy guitars are joined with a brass section to generate squalls of tension that give away the true malaise under the pastoral surface, at once harking back and expanding upon Deerhunter’s classic sound to puncture the cheer of the track. “What Happens to People?” updates the anthemic lonely-souls structure of past triumphs like “Nothing Ever Happened” for a more compact yet empathetic display of solitude, commiserating with others rather than sinking into sad solipsism. Fittingly, the krautrock jamming of yesteryear is replaced with elegant breaks of floating synthesizer, mournful instead of destructive.
The press release for the album contains an extended rant against both the band’s and the larger culture’s fixation on nostalgia, which Cox has castigated in multiple interviews despite his own loose relationship to looking backwards. An undeniable record nerd, Cox nonetheless has never made Atlas Sound or Deerhunter sound like anyone else, in sharp contrast to the easily pinpointed influences of many of their peers. Instead, the band has always sublimated contrasting touchpoints into strange new forms, an approach they maintain here in some of their most leftfield compositions. “Détournement” sounds like ‘80s Japanese ambient mixed with a PA announcement, an extended greeting to the world that occasionally glitches and looks into the great beyond. Pundt’s songwriting contributions tend to result in the most accessible tracks on Deerhunter’s LPs, but here his “Tarnung” is a baffling piece of post-rock that combines xylophone and emotionless chorus vocals with Middle Eastern drone in a composition that sounds like Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and Secret Chiefs 3 teaming up, a far cry from brittle indie gems like “Desire Lines.” Ironically, the track that most directly attacks nostalgia, “Futurism,” sounds the most like Deerhunter as we know them, replacing the surprisingly clear vocal mixing on the album with reverbed and distorted vocals over Moses Archuleta’s unflappable beat.
Pegging the biggest stylistic departure in Deerhunter’s catalog is nearly impossible, but this certainly feels like the biggest tonal deviation. Other records are steeped in Cox’s introspective clutter of mental space and references, but this feels widescreen, a strange kind of road trip album. Many have already compared the record to David Bowie’s Low in their shared penchant for electronically warping a vaguely European sound into terse baroque pop, but the connection may run even deeper than that. Deerhunter’s last three records all have strong Bowie corollaries. Monomania, like Young Americans, perverted roots rock into the most elaborate persona yet by its postmodern maker that nonetheless revealed something of his true self. Fading Frontier was Cox’s Station to Station, using pop trends to mask a rock-bottom moment of fragility and uncertainty. Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? is indeed the band’s Low, a haggard recovery record that has emerged from narcissistic miasma to find a world equally suffering, producing a work whose unexpected sonic experimentation nonetheless reveals a deep empathy. Cox himself has said that the band’s golden age is over, yet this album, like the band’s previous two, only gets better with repeated listening, and if this is the sound of a band in supposed decline, they can still smoke nearly any other outfit working at their peak.