It must be satisfying to be in Deerhunter, right? A band that emerged proudly independent and has since successfully blended the lines of modern indie rock to make oddly affective guitar music that slides off the layers of a myriad of influences from the four members, gaining thousands of fans in the process. Ignoring their messy 2005 debut, 2007’s Cryptograms skirts the lines between psych-rock and ambient, 2008’s Microcastle is as perfect a guitar-based indie release can get, 2010’s Halcyon Digest has gained acclaim for the sepia-toned pop rock that reached euphoric heights, and 2013’s Monomania is the band’s garage rock opus born from Cox’s interest in American rock music. Halcyon Digest has deservedly risen five years since its release to become a classic that has minted Deerhunter into the shaky canon of indie auteurs, so the 180 degree change in temperament from Monomania to their 2015 album, Fading Frontier, comes as no shock from a band that can get away with anything (at least in my rulebook.) They are aging virtuosos, and they’re risking nothing. The moment the groovy single “Snakeskin” was released, worries of their status as a band were over. Leading man Bradford Cox recovered from his injuries after getting hit by a car last winter; fans rejoiced; haters cursed; Deerhunter enjoyed a couple drinks in Cox’s home spinning records. The album should have little expectation stacked against it as long as it continues to show off the band’s talents. The promo release might as well have read: “We came out with a new album? Great news for you!”
Fading Frontier is the sound of simplicity, at first glance. The lyrics are more direct, discordant sounds are filtered through a conventional pop song structure, nothing is cluttered and plenty of sounds creep in the back of the mix. Producer Ben H. Allen, who also produced Digest, brings a cleanliness to the songs similar to many of the cuts from that album. But the minimalism of “Living My Life” and “Leather and Wood” recalls Cox’s solo outfit, Atlas Sound, and that commonality gives the impression that the band didn’t reach out far enough to make something truly singular. These even-tempered sounds may make fans of the band slightly uncomfortable because “calm” and “soft” are not adjectives to commonly describe a noisy, rabble rouser band like Deerhunter, but thorns begin to sprout with subsequent listens. Familiar themes of death, mortality, disfigurement, and escapism crop up in Cox’s stories, and using that through line, he adds those prickly points: for “Living My Life” it’s the prominence of the keyboard, Cox and guitarist Lockett Pundt’s duet on “Breakers,” and the lurching organ and synths during the verses on “Take Care.” At this point, the album has morphed. The the band’s past greatness pops up all over Fading Frontier, such as Cryptograms emphasis on ambient instrumentation, Halcyon Digest’s sunny POV, and Pundt’s “Ad Astra” recalls the washes of sounds from “Neither of Us, Uncertainly,” his lone contribution to Microcastle.
Where it works the album is irresistible. “All the Same” successfully borrows the aesthetics central to their solid 2009 EP Rainwater Cassette Exchange. “Breakers” manages to avoid the natural arc that can plague a band like Deerhunter by using the brightness of the production to juxtapose Cox’s meditation on metaphysical debts, resulting in the strangest encapsulation of the band’s modus operandi, and the chorus delivers one of the album’s biggest gut-checks with the vocal harmonies interlocking with the guitar lines. Combined with its pronounced rhythms, the sexy ‘70s “Snakeskin” sounds like nothing else in their catalogue as Cox essentially sings about his strut.
“Snakeskin” also possesses a specific feeling seldom found on Fading Frontier: risk taking. The band’s brash sonics have always exuded a cockiness that’s alluring, and the songwriting on here doesn’t necessarily lack confidence as much as it just lacks a level of confidence that comes with dangerous risk taking like a younger band might possess. After multiple listens, though, that sense of danger is not a complaint. This gives Deerhunter an opportunity to channel something else. On “All the Same,” Cox sings “You should take your handicaps, channel them, and feed them back / ’Till they become your strengths,” and on “Snakeskin,” he embraces his eccentricities, his “snakelike walk.” These tracks do not succeed entirely for their arrangements, they succeed because the band’s frame of mind has not changed, just shifted. Uncertainty began to surround the band and their possible loss of potential during Cox’s recovery. This album proves they have not weakened.
Some have asserted that this is Deerhunter’s “comfortable” album. It’s easy to see how these songs are quieter and not as fussy, with longer running times but an overall short time span for a regular album, clocking in at 36 minutes with 9 songs. But digging deeper reveals a more sinister side. On opener “All the Same,” he sings about a man who changed his sex only to lose his family and have nothing to live for, on “Take Care” he talks about the inevitability of death with striking images, and he speaks of resurrection in the last line of “Leather and Wood,” reciting “I believe we can die / I believe we can live again,” which comes after driving a car off a cliff, but the sentiment is relevant. And what a way with sequencing! The line about rebirth transitions into “Snakeskin,” which exudes confidence. The softer numbers exist in a much more mental place than Monomania’s troublemaking tendencies, which is Fading Frontier’s most sizable weakness. No matter how textured and atmospheric “Living My Life” and “Leather and Wood” are, these stops reduce the album flow and each meanders before finding its footing. With more prominence placed on the synthesizer, the mood can overshadow the song. But that might be the point. Cox is a heavy thinker on Fading Frontier, and he has had the chance to look at the uncertainty of life and answer with a big shrug. If anything, “comfortable” should be replaced with straightforward and contemplative.
Deerhunter is untroubled now. And so the listener has “Carrion,” as much a closer as a glorious sendoff to a friend, where Cox hopes to unburden himself and exist, like he intones on “Living My Life,” “out of range.” Because after the muscular “Snakeskin” and celestial, B-movie vibes of “Ad Astra,” Cox repeats a similar catharsis he expressed on “Twilight At Carbon Lake,” but instead of expressing an upward motion, he voices a need to be like a “mole in the ground,” finding comfort in solitude. With these nine songs set, it feels like the band set out to execute an album about letting life’s injustices wash over you and accepting that feeling, and they accomplished their task. Fading Frontier is “important” without being challenging, unfortunately, but it is a document of a band aging gracefully. Deerhunter learned that life can be easy, contentedness is nice, and people are just troubled creatures.