Atlanta based indie rock band Deerhunter often defies description when trying to summarize their style. They incorporate sounds from a very diverse stable of influences and this variety is only made weirder by the eccentric personality and lyrics of frontman Bradford Cox. Fading Frontier is Deerhunter’s sixth full length album and the shift away from 2013’s grungy and gritty Monomania seems appropriate given the other drastic leaps in sound that each album seems to make from the last. Luckily for us, Fading Frontier is just as thoughtful, exciting and touching as previous Deerhunter releases. I’m continuously impressed with Deerhunter’s ability to feel fresh while still maintaining the top notch musicianship and unique flavor that makes Deerhunter as successful as they are.
From the first track All the Same you can already hear the differences between Fading Frontier and other Deerhunter albums. Although this song (and album) seem much more settled and domestic there is still a strong sense of discomfort that permeates the music and Cox’s vocals. The lyrics of this track touch on the isolation, home, mortality and change. Despite Cox claiming in an interview with observer.com that this album has no themes, these subjects reappear throughout the album and help craft the message that I took from this project (intended or otherwise). The music on this track seems tentative and uneasy. It reminds me of the macabre vibes of Fluorescent Grey off the Deerhunter EP of the same name. In these moments one can almost smell foetid air and feel oppressive darkness. This apprehensive tension is present on many other tracks on the album including Living My Life, Take Care and Leather and Wood.
The aforementioned dark and weary atmosphere is only one mode of this album though. There are some wonderfully orchestrated points where the cold and spacious shadows give way to bright and warm swells. The dissonance is stripped away and the chords are tight and optimistic. These moments break the tension and offer a sense of relief. These shifts are masterfully incorporated and it’s hard not to appreciate how much thought seems to have gone into the pacing of this album. The most clear example of this is in the transition between Leather and Wood and Snakeskin. Leather and Wood is slow, brooding and dissonant. It evokes hopelessness and apathy. The contrast is almost explosive when Snakeskin starts with it’s driven, funky and lyrically poignant introductory line, “I was born already nailed to the cross”. Leather and Wood is almost hard to sit through, it makes me uncomfortable and lulls me into hazy and dark thoughts. Snakeskin is the polar opposite; the chords are powerful and clear, the lyrics are desperate and impassioned. It’s a cry for freedom from the gloomy fog of depression. Although this dichotomy is at it’s most evident (and in some ways most powerful) between these two tracks, Fading Frontier is riddled with moments like this. You can hear it in the soaring guitar solo of Take Care, in the nostalgic, wistful chorus of Breaker and on the beautiful and somber piano outro on Duplex Planet. Deerhunter skillfully weaves scores of layers together in order to create emotionally potent tapestries. With each listen I find myself stumbling across sounds that I hadn’t noticed, each note carefully placed, each song too intricate to fully appreciate.
Multiple times on this album there are allusions to the severe car accident that Cox was involved in last year. Perhaps because of this accident, Cox often wrestles with his mortality, aging and feelings of weakness on this album. On Breaker Cox uses a water and ocean motif to represent his struggles with fate and mortality. The last lines of this song seem some of the most striking and important on the album “and when I die/ there will be nothing to say/ except I tried/ not to waste another day/ trying to stem the tide”. Cox intentionally pauses between each line and by doing so allows for a different implication with each phrase. “When I die there will be nothing to say” carries a much different sentiment than “When I die there will be nothing to say except I tried” and so on. Duplex Planet shifts the focus from a fear of death to a fear of being forgotten. Cox manages to tie in the horror of aging here as well, referencing nursing homes to represent this fear. Cox is clearly an exceptional lyricist but beyond that it seems that he has more to say than some of his contemporaries. Each song seems like an authentic struggle from Cox’s personal life, which leaves the listener with a sense of authenticity.
Now despite all my gushing over this album, it still has flaws. I’m not a big fan of the hook used on Living My Life. It comes off as a little corny but admittedly seems to fit in once combined with the chorus later in the song. This album is also more subdued than other Deerhunter releases. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but I personally would’ve liked to see the same level of energy displayed on Snakeskin show on more of this album. Guitarist Lockett Pundt’s contribution Ad Astra seems lacking. For those who don’t know, there’s usually at least one song on each Deerhunter album written and led by Pundt. In the past, these tracks have been highlights for me offering some respite from Cox’s experimental tendencies and over the top persona. Ad Astra fell short for me though. The pagan star child schtick was interesting but the music seemed to have a little too much dream and not enough pop for a dream-pop track.
These pitfalls are minor though and don’t detract too much from the album as a whole. There will be those who complain because this album is so different from previous Deerhunter offerings (as if new Deerhunter albums aren’t always a departure from the others). It doesn’t matter that Fading Frontier isn’t Halcyon Digest because Fading Frontier is it’s own triumph. Had Deerhunter tried to emulate the success of previous albums they would have failed because it would have been dishonest and honesty is Deerhunter’s greatest strength. Cox is an extremely personal and effective songwriter and his bandmates are all talented enough to lend his voice an intimate and authentic sound. That’s why Deerhunter still manages to be so successful with each release despite the constantly changing style of each album. Fading Frontier is no exception to the high bar of quality set by previous Deerhunter projects. It is an album that is simultaneously complex and direct. It guides the listener through not just Cox’s thoughts but also his emotions and it does so with entertaining music. What more could you ask for?
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