Premature Evaluation: Deerhunter Fading Frontier
Around the time of 2010 career pinnacle Halcyon Digest, it became clear that Deerhunter were the greatest indie rock band of their generation. By “indie rock” I mean the fertile niche of guitar-driven noise-pop pioneered by the Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, Pavement and their ilk — bands that have a deep reverence for rock ‘n’ roll’s old, weird past and an ear for its future. But however you want to define “indie” or “rock,” which of Deerhunter’s peers has assembled a more captivating, challenging, rewarding catalog over the past decade? They have competition, sure, but whereas many bands their age have bloated and curdled or settled into a comfortable groove, Bradford Cox and friends continue to thrive and evolve. Deerhunter are six full-lengths, two EPs, numerous side projects, and countless rarities deep into a discography that’s about to get one album deeper, and even at that prolific pace, they still haven’t made a false step.
The latest of those steps, 2013’s Monomania, was the most divisive. Deerhunter’s career has been characterized by controversy, but it’s typically been extracurricular in nature, related to Bradford Cox’s on-stage antics (thrashing around in a dress, etc.) or applying his one-of-a-kind wit to pantheon-level media trolling. (He continued the latter pastime last week when, among other chestnuts, he told The Observer, “Well that’s why I decided to be gay, so I never have kids that love Taylor Swift.”) Their records have always blended extremes in exciting ways — rigid post-punk butting up against formless shoegaze, ferocious snarls giving way to fragile whimpers, Southern traditionalism commingling with radical otherness — but usually with a reverence for the underground rock canon that amounts to its own kind of populism.
Monomania marked the first time Cox’s actual music was as polarizing as his behavior. Coming off a thrilling series of records on which they continually tightened up their sprawling ethereal racket until it resembled something like pop, Deerhunter veered sharply into abrasive garage rock. Whereas Halcyon Digest tracks “Don’t Cry” and “Revival” prettied up primitive ’50s rock ‘n’ roll by slathering it in dreamy atmospherics, Monomania material like the howling “Leather Jacket II” and the rootin’-tootin’ “Pensacola” rendered that same kind of dusty-45 music intentionally ugly, stripping it to its basic elements and drowning them in static. The sonic violence that ensued often sounded like what Bo Diddley might come up with if he rose from the grave and signed to In The Red Records.
Such willfully jagged “nocturnal garage” was the closest Deerhunter had come to approximating their friend the late Jay Reatard or fellow Atlanta provocateurs the Black Lips, with whom Cox shares a Twitter account. And although the reviews were generally strong, anecdotally, I get the sense people don’t think of Monomania as a classic on par with the rest of Deerhunter’s post-Cryptograms discography. Cox has a similar perception; he’s recently called it a “hateful” and “angry” record, telling Pitchfork that he was “a mixed-up wreck” at the time of its creation, but he’s also been vehemently defending it in interviews like this one at Grantland:
I’ll say this: I really think Monomania was a successful record artistically, and I don’t think people view it that way. I think it’s viewed as an exhausted misstep. Frankly, I feel a lot stronger about Monomania. Monomania was a case where I set out to accomplish, and I was able to execute, very much what I wanted to. In that way it was a success. I don’t give a shit how many copies it sold or how it got reviewed.
I agree with Cox that Monomania was a successful artistic exercise, but it’s also just an awesome record. It has killer songwriting and a striking point of view. Watching Deerhunter perform those songs in 2013 was every bit as rhapsodic as seeing them on tour behind Halcyon Digest in 2010. Rather than ruin a peerless run, it cemented Deerhunter’s legendary status, proving they had more weapons in their arsenal then anyone imagined and providing the sonic overhaul the band needed to avoid creative stasis. Ian Cohen nailed it in his Pitchfork review: “They’ve pulled off something admirable in making an illogical left turn feel like the logical next step where one didn’t exist. For the first time since Cryptograms, Deerhunter’s next move will be harder to predict than Cox’s.”
That next move retreats from Monomania’s confrontational sound, but not back to the middle. Fading Frontier skips past Deerhunter’s signature alien dreampop into a pleasingly paradoxical new aesthetic. It simultaneously contains the band’s most complex grooves and the most placid music of their career. Halcyon Digest producer Ben H. Allen, the man who helped Merriweather Post Pavilion achieve stadium status, is back in the fold, but he and the band scale down their scope this time around, often favoring mood and texture over visceral impact. Our earliest information about the album was Cox’s claim that it sounds like INXS, a reference that surfaced again in the “Concept Map” Cox created to unpack his current influences. And though he might have been joking, there’s a cleanness and clarity to the production that resembles the less bombastic side of ’80s pop — cue the Tom Petty/R.E.M./Tears For Fears namedrops on the Concept Map. Plus it contains some of Deerhunter’s most fascinating rhythmic work; lead single “Snakeskin” is every bit as funky as “Need You Tonight” and doubly demented.
Still, Fading Frontier feels like a self-consciously minor release, emotionally direct but sonically oblique. Arriving a decade after debut full-length Turn It Up Faggot, the album represents Deerhunter’s transition into elder statesmen status, and not just because Cox seems so preoccupied with aging throughout. It’s a contemplative record, never as naked as Microcastle’s languid middle section or Halcyon Digest’s “Sailing” but far more stable and sedate. Judging from Cox’s recent interviews, in the months since the nasty car accident that put him in the hospital last December, he seems to have settled into a comfortable domestic existence, living alone in Atlanta with a canine companion and lots of decades-old records. He’s been telling anyone who asks that he has nothing left to prove, and he’s right. His latest songs are accordingly chill, though still haunted in their own way. If Monomania was this band’s Yeezus freakout, Fading Frontier is “Only One” as sung to Cox’s dog Faulkner.
Not that the album is anywhere near as tender as that “Only One” comparison suggests. Cox’s lyrics remain as impossible to pin down as his interviews; if you believe he’s not taking the piss, the words are even a mystery to Cox himself. (Regarding a key lyric from opening track “All The Same,” he told The Observer, “It all just comes from nowhere, and when I hear a line like that coming out of my mouth I think, ‘That’s the spirit.'”) Yet in keeping with Cox’s brush with death and his music’s shift toward sobriety, these at least seem to be the most reflective songs Deerhunter have released, the ones that deal most plainly with universal human experience.
Cox grapples repeatedly with the end of his youth — ruing wasted days on “Living My Life,” getting freaked out by a nursing home on “Duplex Planet,” essentially banishing the memory of a dead friend on “Carrion” so he can move on with his life. Lockett Pundt’s lone contribution, “Ad Astra,” gets into the spirit by imagining an eerie reanimation ceremony in the woods. The reckoning with mortality gets murkier at the album’s center: On “Take Care” (unfortunately, not a Big Star nor Beach House nor Drake and Rihanna cover), he assures his listeners they’ll all be corpses soon, and it’s unclear whether he means it as a taunt or a statement of liberation. And the queasy “Leather And Wood” matches the least likable music on the album with some half-hearted Daily Affirmations-style mantras. Yet for all their dark uncertainly, there’s a lightweight contentedness in these songs that suggests a man who’s endured trauma and accepted his place in the universe. “I’m still alive,” Cox sings, “and that’s something.”
Such themes give Cox plenty of opportunity to again toy with the language of Southern old-time religion, and as usual, that ploy yields some of his finest songwriting. On the exquisite new wave excursion “Breaker” he hilariously wonders whether he’ll pay his cosmic debts via “Christ or credit” and escapes into the peace of a late-night drive, only to realize that even the stars above him are dying. His conclusion? “I’m not wasting another day trying to stem the tide.” Meanwhile, “Snakeskin” collects many of his prior religious reference points — the image of Cox crucified from “Calvary Scars,” the way “Revival” framed queer sensuality in terms of a rapturous encounter with the Holy Spirit — and assembles them into a swaggering beast that sounds like nothing else in Deerhunter’s discography. On the other hand, “Snakeskin” exudes a confidence in its own weirdness that feels very much of a piece with the rest of Deerhunter’s output to date. It finds Cox embracing his tumultuous experience as a gay music nerd with Marfan syndrome living in the American South, living out his own advice from “All The Same” by turning his otherness into a superpower: “You should take your handicaps/ Channel them and feed them back/ Until they become your strengths/ Hollowed out, it’s all the same.”