“Nature Boy” is not only a landmark for being Nat King Cole’s first crossover hit to reach white audiences in America. It also presented this country with the idea of the hippie. Cole got the song from eden ahbez, an American orphan who worked at a health food store in Los Angeles, who’d learned of the Lebensreform and its philosophy from the store owner, a German immigrant. Taken by the virtues of clean living, ahbez joined up with his proto-hippie co-workers in a group called Naturmensch, translated Nature Boys. Living in plain sight of anyone who dared to see past the trees for the forest, he camped under the Hollywood sign.
Ahbez wrote a song called “Nature Boy,” about falling in with the Naturmensch and leaving all of his possessions for the one thing that truly matters: love. Possessed by a need to get his message out, he wrote the music and handed it to Nat King Cole’s driver, who passed it to Cole’s manager, leading to one of the singer’s finest hours. “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn,” Cole crooned, “is to love and be loved in return.”
Detractors of California, that lightning rod of cultural criticism, rarely think of it as part of the United States. Yet Commiefornia or Hollyweird by any other name is still part of our vast nation — a big cog in the machine, but a cog nonetheless. For all of its bright lights and dollar signs, California is, by and large, not Los Angeles. It’s also San Francisco, where Deafheaven originated.
San Francisco’s image has changed vastly in the past decade. It’s gone from denim vests and flower power to Patagonia vests and solar power. In 2010, San Francisco’s median rent was less than $1,100. It shot up to $2,900 by 2012. George Clarke and Kerry McCoy spent most of that year writing Sunbather in their apartment together after a marathon touring session that spanned from February to May. McCoy, in an interview with Red Bull Music Academy, mentions that he and Clarke slept on a living room floor during this era. In the same interview, McCoy says that he previously worked at a Ben & Jerry’s on Haight Street in Haight-Ashbury, the epicenter of hippie culture 40-some years prior.
Do you remember the first time that you heard, “Dream House”? When I pressed play on a SoundCloud link to the single’s streaming premiere, it was unlike anything I’d ever heard. I remember it absolutely shattering my idea of what black metal should sound like. Outside of Loveless by My Bloody Valentine and Lord Willin’ by Clipse, I’m not sure there’s an album that better prepares you for its sound in its first five seconds than Sunbather. It’s like walking into the parking lot after a three-hour movie. It’s the same buzzsaw guitar that every black metal album uses, but this time, it comes out as a blast of light interrogating every shadow.
Black metal lends itself to painting with a broad, black brush. Though evolved from genres before it, the style has not developed much from inception. Similar to another musical-cultural movement created by angry young men, straightedge hardcore, its core tenets are easy to understand if not slightly immature. Scandinavia’s black metal scene, for all of its church-burning and using-suicide-photos-for-album-artwork, is evil not for the sake of evil, even if the artists would have you believe otherwise. No, it’s evil for the sake of isolation. It’s music about pushing the people around you further and further away, as you retreat to a cabin or rundown castle in the thick of the woods, wearing spiked gauntlets and sipping wine until the end of your days. It’s a reactionary genre, and much like punk reacted to hippies, it spits in the face of the socialism and acceptance and nicety that define Scandinavia in the public imagination.
So if black metal’s reaction to Northern Europe’s social welfare and general pleasantness is to retreat into the self, what would the American version of that look like? The opposite of black in this case isn’t white, but rather a pinkish-orange, like sunlight knocking on the doors of your closed eyelids. What would a black metal album sound like if it pushed against the isolation and lack of love that is so deeply ingrained into American society? Well, it would sound like Sunbather by Deafheaven.
The record itself borrowed heavily from their contemporaries in Alcest, who pioneered the “blackgaze” sound, but Deafheaven weren’t interested in committing their work to any genre. Kerry McCoy’s guitar parts are oddly pretty and poppy for any metal record, let alone one steeped in the tradition of black metal. McCoy’s work is influenced by Jonny Marr and Neil Halstead more than Euronymous, and the twinklier parts sound closer to Mogwai, another band whose mastery of juxtaposition in dynamics is a hallmark of their sound. While it wasn’t apparent at the time, the band’s choice to cover Mogwai’s “Punk Rock/Cody” on a split with Boss-de-Nage from 2012 told listeners everything we needed to know about how Sunbather would sound. Mogwai’s original features a sample of an interview by Iggy Pop on the BBC, giving an impassioned monologue about the power of his music. Pop’s focus on artistic expression free of the constraints of genre reverberated from that Mogwai record into the ethos of Deafheaven, as they in turn use William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech as a sample on their version. Faulkner’s speech is concerned with the triumph of man over adversity, specifically a life full of it, and how that is the only thing worth writing about.
It’s hard to overstate the impact this record had on everything and everyone who was paying attention to guitar music upon its release 10 years ago this Sunday. Within the genre, it sparked a wave of blackgaze bands cropping up worldwide, which continues to ripple to this day. Sunbather’s art — that pinkish-orange referenced above with stark, now iconic lettering created by Touché Amoré’s Nick Steinhardt — was a point of contention amongst black metal fans almost immediately. Even before the first chords of the record ring out, it’s not pure enough for the purists. But almost as if to nod back to Deafheaven, the next Alcest record (2014’s Shelter) features the sun prominently on the cover art, with hands joined around it in relief or in pain, depending on how you look at it. The detractors would not win; Sunbather would almost immediately enter the canon of black metal. It remains Deafheaven’s most popular album, and it might be the most popular black metal album of all time. At the very least, America’s greatest contribution to the genre. Sunbather became a pariah for the purists but found itself in the hands of Pitchfork readers and other outsiders who cherished the record’s ability to appeal to someone who didn’t care if Craft’s Void had a drum machine instead of a real drummer on it.
In its wake, Sunbather became The Metal Album for so many new fans. I remember longtime Deafheaven listeners lamenting the new crowds at their once-favorite band’s shows, referring to the “Sunbather bros” as a plague among metal shows. The crossover appeal would not fade in time. The band still finds itself on bills with indie bands and metal stalwarts alike. Their opening acts on headlining tours tend to be one heavy band with indie appeal and one post-punk or coldwave band with the same sort of following. It’s not surprising, given their influences or their refusal to be lumped with all of the other bands in their genre. For a band whose music owes as much to Neil Halstead as it does to Nocturno Culto, J Mascis, and Dave Murray, their ability to craft a cohesive record out of all of those influences led them to creating one of the greatest black metal albums of all time.
To Faulkner’s point in that sampled speech about agony and triumph, Sunbather is about yearning. George Clarke’s lyrics on “Dream House” portray a man who wants to be sober, wants to live on the opposite coast, and most importantly, wants to dream. The dream in “Dream House,” of course, is death. Clarke recalls the conversation at the end of the song as a real conversation he had with a girl he was “totally in love with.” Perhaps dramatic to a comedic extent, when he asks her how she’s doing, she replies that she’s dying. She might be kidding, but he’s dead serious. If she’s dying, then he wants to die, too. Whatever it takes for him to be with her.
The record’s title track is, on the surface, about feeling out of place and inadequate in a rich neighborhood. As Clarke would tell the story, it’s about driving around San Luis Obispo and seeing how the rich people lived while he resided in a poorer part of the city. By virtue of its environment, it’s also about the drastic income inequality that would only get worse in the band’s hometown of San Francisco. It’s about Clarke and McCoy’s sudden rise to metalhead acclaim after Deathwish picked up Deafheaven’s first album Roads To Judah and sent the band off to tour Europe. They’re, again, sleeping on floors in America. Clarke’s anxieties about his body when faced with the sunbather in the song are the same anxieties we face with food, housing, and money on a daily basis.
While Roads To Judah concentrates almost entirely on Clarke’s struggle with alcohol addiction, Sunbather is a glimpse of the root cause for it all. The progression structures the band’s career like therapy, where the problems are identified and then investigated. Clarke has discussed this in interviews and stated that the record is mostly about growing up without money or a father and seeing all of the things he could never have. While it’s more common to have a single parent than it ever has been, single-parent families still only make up about a fourth of families in the US. A third of those live below the poverty line. It’s in our nature to want stability we’ve never had.
The woman sunbathing in “Sunbather,” isn’t defined by any natural beauty. It’s all purchased. She’s described with reflective eyes (sunglasses), granite nails, and rose petal toes. Clarke’s lyrics could have touched on a real woman he’s enraptured with, but he focuses on accents she’s acquired and her wealth. With no real definition of this person’s appearance or personality, she could be anyone, sure, but she could really be anyone. Our lower-class narrator is looking for any acceptance he can find from the upper class. He wants to be with her, but he mostly just wants to be on that lawn. He wants to feel the warmth on his face.
It’s not only Clarke exorcizing demons on this record. The nearly five-minute interlude “Windows” contains a recording of a drug deal where guitarist Kerry McCoy is purchasing Oxycontin. At the time, opiate abuse wasn’t as rampant in America as it is now. Heroin was always a problem in extreme music, but pharmaceutical opiates were taboo — seen as a fringe case rather than the all-consuming plague gripping the USA, eating it from the inside out.
The audio of the deal is sandwiched around a sermon where a street preacher warns anyone within earshot about Hell and God’s salvation, about the warmth below and how turning away from God’s love will lead you to ruin. McCoy’s tape wobbles and he stutters; we’re unsure where the failures of the physical media and the physical body stop and end. He’s desperate for pills and needs his fix. He gets an agreement to get eight pills for $60, and he won’t pay any more than that. As is a recurring theme on this record, he doesn’t have money, but he needs this or he’ll go through opiate withdrawal, a kind of Hell on Earth where death seems like a reprieve. While researching his role for Pulp Fiction, John Travolta asked a heroin addict what it felt like to do heroin. The addict told Travolta to “Get drunk on tequila and lay down in a warm pool.” If that’s how opiates feel, then I can only assume McCoy was looking for warmth the same way that Clarke looked for warmth by bathing in the sun’s light.
“The Pecan Tree” is the record’s breakthrough moment, a monumental closer. While “Vertigo” has all of the standout appeal, “The Pecan Tree” is where everything clears up. Clarke sings about blaming his father for all of the love he can’t give or receive in this life. He feels the lack of his father is the root cause of it all. It’s impossible for him to feel that warmth, whether it’s from another person, God, or the sun. He’s unable to feel any of it because of what he’s been deprived of, and he’s doomed to repeat these same mistakes until he dies, cold and alone, the way his father lives.
“I cannot love. It’s in my blood,” Clarke screams over the wail of pretty, shimmering guitars that flick like confetti glistening in the light. Clarke’s addiction to alcohol and feelings of inadequacy can all be traced to this fallout between his mother and father. He’s been searching his entire life for these words and these feelings, casting light on every dark moment of his life. Just like the guitars on this record bring light into the darkest world, Clarke and Co.’s artistic expression shines light into the intentional void that is black metal and the listener’s relationship with it.
Sunbather isn’t just a watershed moment in black metal, it’s a snapshot of American life in the 21st century. It’s a perfect summation of what the past 30-some-odd years of black metal had wrought. Its cover art and sound and lyrical content go against any preconceived notion of what the genre had to offer and skewed it in such a way that it not only makes sense, but it can provide listeners with the warmth that Deafheaven search out for. It’s a piece of art birthed from poverty, divorce, and addiction, all genuine dark realities of American life; it shows that the greatest thing you could ever learn is to love and be loved in return.