Words:  Dominic Valvona

Deerhunter Fading Frontier - Monolith Cocktail

Deerhunter   ‘Fading Frontier’   (4AD)   16th October 2015

There can be no doubt that Deerhunter’s seventh studio album has benefited from a brighter and more melodic production: the penchant for sophisticated, inter-layered but accessible melodies and a tune counterbalancing the emotional pull and drag of an abstract, discordant wilderness. Yet, the mired resignation of depression, the result of both front man and guiding force Bradford Cox’s lifelong Marfan syndrome and last year’s serious car accident, when he was knocked down in the street, permeate the album’s lyrics. And why wouldn’t it? Depression is an evil incumbent foe to many but is when you think about it, a rational mental and emotional response in the face of these troubling anxious times – and if you need to know exactly which of the modern world’s problems are keeping Cox awake at night, then there’s a scribbled ideas smorgasbord of a wall chart currently doing the rounds that refers to the music industry, the internet, gender and more.

Still, a reflective, worn down but not yet out Cox is, if anything, ready to let go; the title of the LP referring to his vague preconceived boundary of achievement (maybe even recognition and success), a “fading frontier” no longer worth pursuing, if it ever really existed. Cox’s airbag like epiphany has spurred him creatively. And if Deerhunter fans and admirers alike long for the maelstroms and experimental sound sculpting of the past this slicker, even in places, funkier progression is their best record yet.

Still lurching in a multi-limbed fashion from one idea to the next, the founding members (Lockett Pundt, Moses Archuleta and Josh McKay) make sure Cox doesn’t have it all his own way. Much as we the critics single him out, Deerhunter has always been a team effort. Fading Frontier even features the band’s first duet, with Pundt and Cox in Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark harmony, channeling Green era REM and Big Star on the jangled theme song ‘Breaker’ – the lyrics laying out and coming to terms with a new found reflective philosophy: “Jackknifed on a side street crossing. I’m still alive, and that’s something. And when I die, there will be nothing to say, except I tried, not to waste another day, trying to stem the tide.”

Following up the “death rattle garage catharsis” (and disturbed Motown) of the band’s last outing, the confounding Monomani, Ben H Allen III returns to steady the ship, his Animal Collective production duties proving valuable, as the morose and amorphous indulgences are reined in (for the most part).

Sounding like a quivering reverb Lennon abandoned on the Mars surface, Cox once again channels his Parallax Atlas Sound crooner on the album’s most tortured-soul malaise ‘Leather And Wood’. A J.G.Ballard envisioned dystopian slice of Sci-fi, Cox is the man who fell to Earth, or more appropriately the man who fell under the anesthetic, as he tunes in and out of a morphine state to the sound of a room filled with hospital equipment from another world. Everything else is a breeze in comparison, the opening trio of songs ‘All The Same’, ‘Living My Life’ and the already mentioned ‘Breaker’ embracing an alternative pop ascetic – melodically sophisticated with the spirit and nostalgia of halcyon 80s Georgia. The latter of these even has an optimistic Animal Collective style buoyancy, sailing ever closer to a swimmingly Tropicana style Beach Boys paean to overcoming adversity.

Already out in the wilds, the teaser ‘Snakeskin’ is an odd shot from the hip, Beck like electric glide in blues. Funky, slinky, slithering like a southern swamp reptile in a glam boogie distortion of an electric Muddy Waters recast by Nil Rodgers and David Bowie, the loneliness and despair of Cox’s recovery is curiously laid bare in a liquid stonk. Other notable mentions should go to the abstracted Beach House bastardsation ‘Take Care’ – not only pendulously taking its cue musically but also the track title from the duo’s Teen Dreams LP. A percussive synth waltz in the dry-ice of a 80s neon-lit bandstand, this translucent sweeping dream features the misty cosmic keyboard and tape manipulations of Broadcast’s James Cargill – he of Broadcast fame. Fellow Brit and sonic komische traveller Tim Gane, formerly of the much applauded disciples of Krautrock pop Stereolab, appears on the new wave trip ‘Duplex Planet’, adding celestial electronic harpsichord charms. Another celestial work of art is the Numan-esque ‘Ad Astra’, which translates – as if the music and lyrics didn’t already give you a clue – as ‘to the stars’. One of the most diaphanous lush tracks on the entire album, Deerhunter languidly soars upwards into a cacophony of satellite transmissions, space shuttles and competing radio broadcasts: Quite beautiful.

Emerging from the underground with a dedicated fan base that I’m sure will follow them wherever they wish to travel next, Deerhunter have been one of the most successfully, artistically speaking, creative if not esoterically amorphous and experimental bands of the last decade. In an era where we crave for something more intelligent and daring in the commercial and pop arenas, the Atlanta band has just released an exceptional album that brokers the two. Without a doubt they have embraced both melody and song structures unlike ever before, yet the compromise has only made their sound richer, sophisticated and even more multi-textured. Fading Frontier is a stunning piece of work.

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