Here’s a long piece I wrote about Deerhunter’s new album, Fading Frontier, that never saw the light of day — so dropping it here for posterity.
Bradford Cox, the enigmatic frontman of Deerhunter, and mastermind behind Atlas Sound, has danced on a thin wire of contradictions and complexity: Cox has gained a reputation as a thoughtful, if elusive musician holding himself at arm’s length, and an unrelenting provocateur known for bizarre stage antics, strange sense of humor, and unpredictable pull quotes. More often than not, Cox’s true battles were with himself: He’s frequently open about his physical health, his identity, and his struggles with depression and insecurity. Remarkably, his issues often manifested as an obsessively prolific work ethic for churning out brilliant escapist pop music awash in glimmering layers of sounds and static. Still, that darkness extrapolated and reached a breaking point with 2013’s Monomania, Deerhunter’s messy and manic collection of sinister impulses and claustrophobic anxieties personified as clattering rock ‘n’ roll and scorched cacophony.
Now, with its latest album, Fading Frontier, Deerhunter reboots itself and charts a different path, one of warmth and calm. Even as Fading Frontier explores familiar themes of religion, alienation, and heartbreak, the album finds Cox with a newfound serenity — a change in perspective no doubt the outcome following a traumatic car accident in December 2014 that left him sidelined as he recovered over many months.
Throughout the album, there’s a sense that Cox benefited from the downtime, most apparent with “Breaker” — a song that, for the first time, showcases Cox and guitarist Lockett Pundt together in subtle duet. Set to dusty drum machine beats and chiming keyboards, they ruminate on mortality and moving forward, singing “I’m still alive, and that’s something / And when I die, there will be nothing to say except ‘I tried.'”
With the buoyant highlight, “Living My Life,” Cox hints of his contentment with domesticity by going off the grid, and alludes to his endless pursuits for personal acceptance: “Will you tell me when you find out how to recover the lost years? / I’ve spent a lifetime chasing a fading frontier,” he sings.
And in “All The Same,” he looks at his vulnerabilities as a source for growth: “You should take your handicaps / channel them and feed them back / till they become your strength.”
Musically, Deerhunter mostly reins in the distorted chaos in favor of silky synthesizers, chirping electronics, and sonic flourishes that embellish the corners of the mix. The band even gets downright funky with the glam rocker “Snakeskin,” which unleashes a slinky groove bubbling with lip-curling verve. Although Cox wrote eight of the album’s nine songs (Pundt contributed “Ad Astra”), he credits the stylistic shift to a fuller collaboration with his bandmates — Pundt, Moses Archuleta and Josh McKay — and producer Ben H. Allen III, who’s worked with them since 2010’s Halcyon Digest. Recorded in hometown Atlanta, Georgia, Fading Frontier also features tape loops from Broadcast’s James Cargill on the blissed-out, swaying waltz “Take Care”; Stereolab’s Tim Gane playing electronic harpsichord on the pulsating “Duplex Planet,” and Zumi Rosow on that nasty treated alto sax on “Snakeskin.”
Near the end of transcendent synth pop track “Ad Astra” there’s an eerily feint strain of Basom Lamar Lunsford’s “mountain banjo” song “I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground” — as if picked up from distant, staticky radio tower. As it segues into the album’s rousing closer, “Carrion,” Cox quotes the folk traditional, retreating from the world and the ghosts of his past: “Leave me alone, I am alone / Deep in the ground, looking around / Trying to find my home.” Deerhunter been one of the past decade’s most engrossing bands with the ability to conjure an alluring haze of nostalgia as a way to forget the hurt of the present. By aiming to move past the pain and loneliness, Fading Frontier‘s songs achieve a small semblance of peace of mind.