Three Takes on Fading Frontier, the new LP from Deerhunter
It can be difficult to gain a balanced perspective on an album after reading a single summary of the music. Bias can tilt a review, as can personal taste, history and just about everything else that is unique to the person writing it. So in an effort to offer an expanded perspective in such a medium, here are three reactions, three impressions, three takes on Fading Frontier by Deerhunter.
Michael Cyrs, @mjcyrs
At many points along Deerhunter’s path, there was no hope for Bradford Cox. His band built an unconscious world and softened the blows of isolation and meaninglessness inside of it. Cryptograms, in particular, put miles between struggle and happiness, making it easier to observe and understand each. Halcyon Digest further helped Cox through darkness as he asked of the dead: “Where do you go when you’re sleeping?” The answer never came, and Fading Frontier is the acceptance of that lack of reason.
Now there are no more questions. The erratic flits of dulcimer on “Leather and Wood” are the vague memories of past disillusionment, and stand as sadness’s only attempt to break the mood of the record. Cox accepts the randomness of life in an outer space croon that travels to another dimension on “Snakeskin” where, for one of the many times on Fading Frontier, he merely puts labels on his past and chooses to live in the present; not in a strange world where only unfounded futures can thrive.
It would have been quite alright if Deerhunter hadn’t let go of their punkish broodings. However, that is the exact frontier that has faded. What was once grace in the face of deeply repressed emotions is now fragility in the face of death. Cox was nearly killed in a car accident late last year, and has since cooled off, started taking antidepressants, and bought a dog. “I’m alive/I don’t credit the source/I just drive,” he sings on “Breaker,” not caring to know the why or how behind his survival. Life will continue despite anything apart from death. The cost of this struggle and the acceptance thereof is at the core of many of these songs.
Although it’s secondary to the change in attitude, there’s a marked change in instrumentation. Since Deerhunter are masters of effects pedals, it’s strange to have Lockett Pundt in synthesizer land on “Ad Astra” – a callback to the early haze days of the band with its use of unintelligible lyrics and melodic bass grooves. Its purpose on an album of optimism is lost, though it does serve to artificially extend Fading Frontier – by far the band’s shortest album. “Take Care” does the opposite with concise and cute delivery that has Cox giving out hope and fond advice. It’s a fine marriage of the newer, synthesizer-heavy Deerhunter and the old, effects driven one.
It’s easy to break down Fading Frontier since all of the performances, especially those of drummer Moses Archuleta, are up to the bands par. Cox no longer cares to force emotion although this has been breezy, fun, and beautiful in the past. The music is calmer, but his flare hasn’t left with his anger, thus solidifying the album into the bands pristine legacy. When a mind is filled with kaleidoscopic landscapes that attempt to offer healing and companionship for ailing ears, the future can become either scary or idealistic. Each of these creates an uncomfortable tension with the other. Now, there is no future that is worth anything to Cox’s present. Everyone (particularly Deerhunter fans) has moments where existential crises dominate the mind. Conversely, everyone has moments where adulthood actually becomes something stronger and better than what punk rock usually says “fuck you” to. “Living My Life” is the other side of that statement: “I’m off the grid/I’m out of range/and the amber waves of grain are turning grey again,” sings a mindful Cox. It’s not often that a punk band has this kind of clarity, so it helps that that’s not what the band are anymore. They’ve become something more; something that ages. Is this a less engaging rock record as a result? Who could say for a band that releases albums that unfold as slowly as Deerhunter’s? But, it’s clear that this isn’t going to break Bradford Cox’s stride one way or the other.
In the two years since Deerhunter’s album Monomania, his new album Fading Frontier may seem like some sort of epiphany project-wise. You can tell through songs like “Living My Life” that Bradford has found some new perspective, and that theme is carried across on songs like “Take Care,” and “Carrion.” However, there’s also a lot of upbeat moments to balance that out, especially on songs like “Snakeskin,” and “Duplex Planet” which sound more like reaffirmations to Bradford Cox. The fact that it’s still able to shine through in the lyrical themes of Fading Frontier still proves that Deerhunter continues to provide great material and triumph in the face of life-changing events.
When we first heard the glammed-out pop of “Snakeskin,” I thought Bradford Cox and Deerhunter had decided to fully bow at the alter of T Rex. Cox has also had a bit of Marc Bolan-esqe shaman to him, and the slithery groove of the first single from the new Fading Frontier LP gave the impression that he would take on not only his outsider spirit, but his songwriting style as well. Well, on further dive into the record, it is clear that this isn’t a fully realized 1973 glam record, but simply another step in the evolution of Cox and his best-known band.
As has been the case with almost every record, the haze continues to lift on Cox’s songwriting and production, with some songs (“Duplex Planet” & “Breaker”) bordering on pure pop. There are a few moments of commanding beauty in the mist, most notably the harrowing “Living My Life.” Overall, Fading Frontier is another slab of woolly fuzz-pop from one of the very best auteurs of our generation. Like many of his previous releases, it is a sneaky album that comes at you from many different directions, unveiling many different layers with each spin. Mr. Cox is a real life chameleon, and a damn talented one at that. Fading Frontier is another feather in his eclectic cap.