A few weeks ago, ahead of the release of Deerhunter’s latest album Fading Frontier, frontman Bradford Cox gave us all some insight into where his mind was during its production by releasing an interactive concept map. In what basically amounts to one of those spider diagram things we all tried to convince ourselves was effective study back when we were 16, Cox lists what he sees as just some of the influences on the album. These include, but are not limited to: soul legend Al Green, the pioneering electronic musician Laurie Spiegel, the works of Pablo Neruda and Pedro Almódovar, the ‘soulless’ smell of new cars, the Pacific North Highway and even his own dog, Faulkner. In terms of trying to accurately represent what must be the multi-faceted, colourfully creative and sardonically humorous headspace this man inhabits, it’s about as close as you’re going to get.
The whole thing is a tad ironic though, because as scattershot and hard to pin down as this map is, Fading Frontier is arguably the most direct Deerhunter album yet. It’s a work that marks the conclusion to an interesting thematic evolution that began two records ago and has only really now become apparent. 2010’s Halcyon Digest, their breakout, was a work obsessed with the past, the subjective nature of it and about how we distort our own memories so as to find comfort in them. Their last album; 2013’s Monomania, was very much a product of its tumultuous present, with a vitriolic Cox externalising his many grievances (whether aimed at homophobia, the media or even a certain Smiths frontman) via hyper-masculine, garage rock. With this album, the band’s gaze is aimed squarely at what’s to come, but as its title suggests, it’s a future that’s becoming increasingly blurred, out of reach and harder to fathom.
For Cox, the perspective has changed. Last December, he was seriously injured after being struck by a car and being hospitalised has clearly shaken him. Often when there’s a significant event in an artist’s life , we can overstate its impact on the ensuing work and see too much of it in its context but in this instance it’s hard to imagine Fading Frontier being the album it turned out to be had Cox not had such a serendipitous brush with death. There’s evident sonic change here yes, but it’s much more than just a case of “Guitars out. Ethereal, sunlit synths in”. The one-two punch of ‘Living My Life’ and ‘Breaker’ capture the album’s direction and outlook in just under seven minutes.
‘Breaker’ shows how Deerhunter can make a perfectly good pop song if just they set their mind to it but this being Deerhunter, it of course has to cover lofty existentialist ideas about our frightening lack of control over the outside world. Amidst the sugary sweet riffs and bellowing bass work, the airy chorus floats in effortlessly with little fanfare:
“Breaking the waves / Again and though I try / The ocean is strong / I cannot stem the tide”
It’s that old adage: no matter what we do, that ocean current will always come back. In the final verse, there’s an explicit reference to his accident (“Jack-knifed/ On a side street crossing”) as an enlightened Cox emerges, one that’s just happy to be ‘alive’ and is determined “Not to waste another day/Trying to stem the tide”. Much has been made about the fact that these songs contain the first ever duets between Cox and fellow songwriter Locket Pundt, and with good reason, because it speaks volumes about not only the frontman being in a better place but also more communal one the band is in.
‘Living My Life’ is one of those special songs that feels like it was just unearthed by Cox after being buried in his psyche for years. His determined vocals soar above otherworldly electronics and alluring drumming (which is at first presented by machine and then spine-tinglingly so by Moses Archeulta).It swirls around our headspace and exudes that immediately uplifting warmth that many great songs do without being in any way saccharine. The track reiterates “Breaker’s” sagacious sense of acceptance but here it’s condensed down into a microcosm of just 3 words. As Cox repeats the title throughout, it becomes a sort of ritualistic chant that’s oddly life affirming. He’s no longer chasing a future that may or may not come to pass (the eponymous Fading Frontier) but instead just living his life, which is all he can do.
For all that they are concerned with our ever imminent expiration; these are tracks that brim with life. With the exception of the twangy sombreness of ‘Leather and Wood’, Fading Frontier finds Deerhunter at their brightest and most pellucid. These songs ring clearly and swell with atmospheric dissonance. The electronic instrumentation feels like the kind you’d find covered in dust in at the dingy end of a charity shop. Cox claims he hates nostalgia but his songs sure don’t. There are the antiqued sounding keyboards of ‘Take Care’, the electronic harpsichord on the jangly ‘Duplex Planet’ and the anti-funk stylings of lead single ‘Snakeskin’. ‘Ad Astra’ is that obligatory Locker Pundt-scribed song that Deerhunter albums tend to have (that also have a habit of being standouts), and this one doesn’t disappoint as a sumptuous synth rich throwback that evokes the horrors at their best.
Fading Frontier captures an artist, not necessarily at peace, but trying very hard to get there. For anyone whose followed the band’s recent history, it comes as off as a welcoming turn of events. Cox could have gone further inward after becoming very literally, painfully aware of his own mortality but instead he reached out and became someone to root for. It’s an added bonus, that in doing so, his band has come out with their best music in half a decade.