Premature Evaluation: Deerhunter Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?
Why haven’t Deerhunter already disappeared? “There’s a reason why I’m here with Deerhunter after all this time,” Bradford Cox recently told Stereogum. “Certainly not for money, for Christ’s sake. What do I have to gain by being in Deerhunter? By continuing this project?” After explaining how much he hates the name Deerhunter, which he didn’t choose, Cox then revealed his motivation for continuing the band when he could easily go solo or quit music altogether: “You can’t change who you are, and Deerhunter is part of who we are. The reason I’m here is because I want to be. And I would never not want to be, because at this point Lockett [Pundt] and Moses [Archuleta] are my brothers.”
Cox, who once bemoaned his chronic isolation, has spoken a lot in recent years about how much he values solitude. He’s detailed his fondness for cruising highways alone at night, for perusing record bins rather than socializing at a bar, for living with no one but a canine companion. Yet he says the passage of years — as well as the untimely death of former Deerhunter member Josh Fauver — has instilled in him a deep appreciation for his bond with these fellow humans. According to Cox, he could return to his solo project Atlas Sound or record under his own name, but at this point Deerhunter is an irrevocable part of his identity. If he’s making music, he wants to do it with his family.
Yet when Cox looks outside himself, as he’s increasingly inclined to do these days, he discovers pain and suffering far and wide — trauma as expansive as the sky over Marfa, Texas, where Deerhunter recorded their new album Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? If you’ll excuse a little armchair psychology, I wonder if Cox is burrowing into the community that is Deerhunter as a respite from the hopelessness and alienation he observes almost everywhere else. It’s a merciless, twisted world out there, and these days the band is devoted to chronicling such evil unflinchingly. To quote Cox’s notes accompanying the new LP: “here is the vomit of 20th century.”
We are a long way from Monomania. Cox’s personality is so big, his perspective so central to Deerhunter, that he’ll always be the public’s focal point no matter how democratic the band may be. But he says he’s tired of writing about himself, and Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? bears that out. In place of the personal accounts of loneliness, frustration, and unfulfilled lust that once dotted Deerhunter’s catalog, we now get tunes like album opener “Death In Midsummer,” a plainspoken look at the horrors of the Russian Revolution. Over a harpsichord-laden rolling groove that belies the song’s dark subject matter, Cox matter-of-factly reports on a photograph of bodies piled in the streets of St. Petersberg: “They were in hills, they were in factories, they are in graves now.”
Throughout the new album, Cox applies this clinical approach to many of Earth’s macabre realities, from the rise in far-right nationalism to the catastrophic climate change now in its birth pangs. Deerhunter have never balked at depicting the grotesque, but now they’re acknowledging that everyday life is grotesque. On “Elemental,” he pictures orange clouds “laid out for the last time,” a “curtain call for all those lives spent surviving for that final day.” On “No One’s Sleeping,” inspired by the 2016 murder of Labour Party MP Helen Joanne Cox by a mentally ill Neo-Nazi, he simply states, ” In the country there’s much duress/ Violence has taken hold.” Deriding his generation’s obsession with nostalgia on “Futurism,” he concludes, “Call it what you want, dear/ I call it ‘fear,’ and I am an expert.” Through a computerized vocal effect on “Détournement,” he creepily assures us, “Your struggles won’t be long, and there will be no sorrow on the other side.”
These frank, almost journalistic dispatches sometimes descend into abstract poetry, but Cox never obscures the truths he’s getting at. He returns repeatedly to the motif of people fading out of memory and into nothingness. Even guitarist Lockett Pundt, on his sole songwriting contribution “Tarnung,” adopts the theme, describing a rainy European street as “a place to fade away.” Death is always creeping in these songs — Cox’s own death, James Dean’s death, the parliamentarian’s murder, the death of all those Russians a century ago, the looming extinction of our species, the demise of culture as society cocoons itself in nostalgia rather than stare down a bleak future — even as the music conjures everyday experience and largely avoids the apocalyptic. In that way the album neatly mirrors our daily existence, the way we use the comfortable and mundane to numb ourselves from the knowledge of our imminent demise.
Not that Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? is comfortable and mundane — not exactly, even if its mannered disposition is a far cry from the high drama of “Helicopter” or the pulse-pounding rave-up “Nothing Ever Happened.” Deerhunter retreated to Marfa with an array of co-producers: the Welsh rocker and singer-songwriter Cate Le Bon, longtime collaborator and indie mainstay Ben H. Allen, and Ben Etter, a musician and engineer who contributed to 2015’s Fading Frontier. That album was a grower that I once described as “a self-consciously minor release.” Deerhunter’s Marfa braintrust has gone that direction again. Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? is another crisp, clean, reserved collection that defies instant gratification but rewards careful attention. It confirms that Deerhunter, never a trend-conscious band but certainly a trendy band at one point, have no interest in riding the zeitgeist or continuing to churn out indie blockbusters. A band that once commanded your attention with grandiose gestures and provocations is now content to be themselves for anyone who cares to listen.
Do I miss the version of Deerhunter that flailed and murmured and exploded in an attempt to thrill me? I can’t lie, I do. I have always preferred hungry young bands over grizzled elder statesmen. But Deerhunter make good elder statesmen. They are just as adept at this more meditative sound as they were at confrontational noise-pop and anthems in the classic indie-rock lineage. The new album overflows with small pleasures: a Stax-worthy brass section buoys “No One’s Sleeping” until the climactic keyboard swirl kicks in; “Tarnung,” with its low-slung horns and twinkling xylophone, evokes Chicago post-rock; “Plains” matches hand percussion and an Afro-pop guitar groove with synths so airy and soaring they blur into the horizon line. Across the board, the music is as remarkably pretty as the lyrics are disturbing, but you wouldn’t necessarily grasp either of those extremes on a cursory listen.
In a sense, Deerhunter are in the process of vanishing along with everything else. It’s a weird thing to say about such a lush album from a band who once released the cavernous Microcastle, but Deerhunter seem to be shrinking. Their current sound — not so different from their older music, just seemingly taking up less space in the world — is a reflection of that universal fading. Yet they haven’t disappeared yet, and neither have we. It’s worth pondering, as the band does with this album title: Why not? Are we merely awaiting the end of our collective inertia, or is there some force staving off the end of the world?
In Deerhunter’s case, that sustaining force is love. Brotherly love is what moved them to keep creating together, and in doing so, they came up with a richly meaningful document of these horrific times. It’s a remarkable accomplishment to maintain your bonds with other people in an increasingly autonomous and isolated age. It almost qualifies as a radical act. Cox is a Southern boy who has sometimes threaded old time religion into Deerhunter’s fabric, so he’s surely aware of Jesus heralding the apocalypse by warning, “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.” For all Cox’s casual doomsaying, the existence of Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? is one of many small evidences that love persists for now. When it finally burns out, that’s when the end will really be near.
Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? is out 1/18 on 4AD. Pre-order it here.