Retreating from the prospect of becoming a great rock & roll band, Deerhunter have returned to tasteful pop-shoegaze mode and made their mellowest, most lyric-driven, most calculated…and, err, most cheesiest album. Best Beach House record of 2015!
Before we get to what’s good here, let’s agree up top: save for Bradford Cox’s voice, you’d have to work pretty hard to convince yourself there’s anything original in Deerhunter’s music, and lord knows many have tried. Spin it how you want, but their music basically fits neatly into the American indie-rock model that’s been standard since R.E.M.: smart young white guitar people of modest ambitions layering tasteful fragments of gathered ideas in on each other. (“In on each other” because at its best the indie-rock form, often helped by indistinct lyric imagery, can sometimes comment on its own nostalgia, ironically or not.) In other words, American indie-rock is inherently sentimental, and Deerhunter are of course no exception. Matthew Fiander’s review of Halcyon Digest for PopMatters had it pegged: “They’re talented, to be sure, but their popularity in indie circles comes more from this: Deerhunter makes us feel smart. We like Deerhunter because we—a small, clustered-up ‘we’—know where they came from.”
Throw Cox’s voice into the equation, though, and things change. His singing takes the high, dreamy frailty of so much moony post-shoegaze twinkle and adds a sort of hissing hiccuppy quality; the sound goes beyond “androgynous” and into “amorphous,” yipping and groaning and squealing and swallowing words, when he’s most engaged. This is the rare voice that genuinely evokes the irregular jump and drift of that “wistful fever-dream” quality.
Unfortunately, Cox’s physical state turns him into a weird martyr figure for a lot of the creepy semiotics-beholden indie music critics who need a Bowie to write about. I still find the early hype for Deerhunter way overzealous, with the difference between past influences not great enough to justify the hosannahs. Cryptograms and the Microcastle/Weird Era Continued double album got plenty of buzz at the time, but as with much early-hyped indie the patchiness and general dithery don’t hold up as anything overly exceptional, the occasional great groove or tune notwithstanding (“Octet”, “Never Stops”, “Nothing Ever Happened”, “Dot Gain”). On 2010’s Halcyon Digest, Cox actually started writing more formally structured songs and fuller tunes to boot, rather than yet more in the “krautrock rhythm + Velvet Underground drone + R.E.M. vocal hooks” mode. (Basically the Stereolab mode.) Many went nuts for that album, and once again consistency was misconstrued as exceptionality.
Don’t get me wrong, the album was just fine! Textured, tuneful, daydreamy, sure! “That October, he came over every day…”; the uplifting head bobbing chime of it all — lovely stuff, really! And yet 2013’s Monomania, which got comparatively mixed reception, was where I thought the band really hit something special, a “nocturnal garage” that actually rocked, proggish passages and textures compartmentalized and strung together through 12 distinct, pop-length songs. A true acid album, that, except rather than a lysergy of twinkle and reverb it’s a scuzzy punkish hookfest with guitars and keyboards and sound effects clattering into each other, Cox barking and croaking and humming in a late-night summer frenzy. “Neon junkyard” indeed; you can almost feel the fluorescent sweat singeing your skin, and the hiss throws the softer and more contemplative passages into poignant relief. It was the first Deerhunter album where I heard actual risks being taken, however modest; sure, it’s another layering of old ideas, but for once it coalesced into something (relatively) new, sonically. Sometimes it happens.
Sometimes. And there’s that qualifier again, bringing us at last to the new album. Fading Frontier, it’s called. Sort of a heady album title there, ain’t it? It fits: this is the first Deerhunter album where a lot of the lyrics are emphasized in the mix. Maybe these lines would’ve played fine with a different sound, but here — helped by Animal Collective/Halcyon Digest producer Ben Allen — we get these cheesy idealized shimmering ‘80s shopping mall vibes, like Balearic revival or some such, turning potentially benign lines like “I don’t ever want to go back to the old folks’ home” or “the amber waves of grain are turning grey again” or “in the midnight hour, I will lose my power” into the stupidest things ever.
The tunes aren’t nothing; “Breaker”, “Duplex Planet” and the chant in the back half of “Ad astra” have been running through my head for days. But generally the songwriting is formulaic, each track distinguished by a gimmick. “All the Same”, a bald-faced rewrite of “Never Stops”, has clunks of percussion breaking up the choruses. “Duplex Planet”, which sees Cox “out of memory,” “losing shape,” and wishing he were a mole in the ground (imagery of biological withdrawal and decay is standard with Deerhunter), has a swirling little harpsichord figure. “Take Care” is in waltz-time. (And makes me keep wishing he’d resolve the chorus of Paul McCartney’s “Let Me Roll It”.) “Snakeskin” is “funky” in the glammy, jittery Young Americans sense. “Breaker” has guitarist Lockett Pundt sharing vocals and features in the main riff an electric guitar tone that’s apparently very in right now, what with Mac DeMarco and the like: a clean, almost antiseptic wobble, like retro video arcade light reflected at night in an empty swimming pool with too much chlorine in it. (This sound dates back most evocatively, I think, to Ween circa The Pod or Pure Guava, and they were blatantly ironic.) “Leather and Wood” is the long slow anxious one with creepy sound effects. “Living My Life” sounds like “chillwave.” “Carrion” sucks. Et cetera.
Not that gimmickry is necessarily a bad thing, mind; R.E.M.’s Murmur is a prime example yet again. But I don’t hear anywhere near as much unfamiliar atmosphere here as on Monomania or even Halcyon Digest, to say nothing of fucking Murmur. Certainly there are some gorgeous sounds here: wobbly flecks of warm keyboard noise and whispy voices in “Take Care”; the guitar mix in the choruses of “Breaker”, sounding like they’re bouncing off shiny metal; the tongue clicks and hi-hats in “Snakeskin” that sound like rattlesnakes; the slow-motion trampoline midsection of “Living My Life”; the über-bleak John Carpenter synth tone that groans into Lockett Pundt’s “Ad astra”; the aforementioned clunks in “All the Same”.
But it’s all still old hat, and not even particularly atmospheric old hat. “Leather and Wood”, for instance, with its lonely-road-at-night vibe, recalls Monomania’s penultimate “Nitebike”.“Nitebike” moves in irregular fits and starts, Cox’s voice jumpy and uninhibited, a whole summer’s worth of melancholy contained in an impressionistic sketch of climbing hills and coasting down the other side just as confused. But “Leather and Wood” is not nearly so situational, all blippy effects and transistor radio buzzes over this slow, spare piano riff. By the same token, take “Snakeskin” — sure, you can dance to it, it’s fun in its flashy one-chord way. But what the fuck is it, really? Like, y’know “Uptown Funk” is still out there, right? Or, I dunno, Ohio Players records? Goddamn Exile on Main St.?
Of course, it’s not Deerhunter’s fault their modest ambitions inspire hyperbole. But this time it started to sting. Back in 2008, Bradford Cox said in an interview that he only disliked sentimentality when it’s “calculated,” explaining that if he himself is nostalgic of sentimental, it’s at least genuine because it comes from a stream-of-consciousness way of performing. And that seems to usually be true; compared to, say, Tame Impala, this band are saviors. But Fading Frontier seems almost like a betrayal of those “uncalculated” principles, what with the corny phrasing of the lines about losing power in the midnight hour and whatnot. When Cox sings that line about the amber waves of grain turning grey again, I immediately thought again of R.E.M., specifically a line from “Driver 8” where Michael Stipe observes the “field to weed is looking thin.” (Or was it “field of wheat”?) “Driver 8” mixed gorgeous imagery over a propulsive riff, written from the perspective of an overworked driver on a long shift — could be a train, a bus, a subway car, whatever. It’s a powerful document of gothic Reaganomic despair, a destination acknowledged as a possibility only visible through strife and labor. But when Bradford Cox sings about the amber waves, it’s done in this corny “chilled-out” synthy blear in between lines about just “living my life.” I don’t know what attitude Bradford Cox has about those amber waves turning grey, or whether the fact that it’s happening “again” implies skepticism or indifference.
As tasteful and comfortable as this album is, the more I played it the more it felt like a bummer. Like, am I really so starved that I’m grasping at four seconds of percussion clunk in a song that’s a rewrite of another song that wasn’t exactly “A Hard Day’s Night” in the first place? There’s something unsettling, even grotesque about all this nostalgia for sanctioned artifice, all this modern recording technology applied in service of retro early-‘80s washed-out roller rink vibes, people grasping desperately back for scraps of a venal, half-remembered (or misremembered) era. It’s fashionable in indie-rock these days to take the abstract R.E.M. approach to songwriting, rather than the more situational one of, say the Replacements (the other pillar in gnostic melancholic American indie). Partly because modern technology makes it easier to arrange cool sounds than it is to capture a particular mood or event explicitly. But maybe it’s also because the prospect of looking straight-on at the appalling socioeconomic state of America, and how little has changed since 1983 — even in the developed world of white alienated suburban young people — is just too painful. It’s more comforting to look at ourselves — and by extension those early days — as an idealized John Hughes dream than it is to actually confront the reality of the situation: nostalgia, in and for, decay. Cowards! Cowards, all of us! B