"I was born already nailed to the cross/ I was born with the feeling I was lost" -Bradford Cox
by Jericho Cerrona
Attempting to pin down the overarching narrative surrounding Deerhunter seems like something Bradford Cox would ultimately write songs about. As the multi-instrumentalist and lead singer for the Atlanta band since 2001, Cox has been the poster boy for upending expectations of what a rock star should be. However, even contextualizing him into the narrative of the rock star is a dubious proposition, one that Cox himself would parody to some degree in his splendid solo record under the Atlas Sound moniker Parallax.
On that album's cover, Cox's profile was shrouded in high contrast shadows clutching an oversized microphone; as if playing the role of some forgotten 1950s matinee idol. His struggle with Marfan syndrome; (a rare connective tissue disorder that affects skeletal and cardiovascular systems) as well as apparent mental breakdowns notwithstanding, Cox is largely seen within the indie scene as an enduring figure. But this all begs the question; what exactly are Deerhunter on about and how does their seventh studio full length Fading Frontier slot into the equation?
Well, for starters, no narrative trajectory is that binary, and Deerhunter have never been a band interested in making simplistic statements. When their dream pop masterpiece Halcyon Digest dropped in 2010, there were mutterings from diehard fans of their raw, lo-fi early work that they had sold out and gone "pop." True to form, their next record, 2013's Monomania, saw them going full tilt with noisy bursts of guitar squall, warbly vocals, and decidedly abrasive production. It was an album only Deerhunter could have made, but one that very few would have expected in terms of their faux-narrative arc of going from underground art-rockers to streamlined indie pop sensations. If there's one semi-unifying theme to the narrative of Deerhunter (or more specifically, Cox's songwriting habits) its the idea of death, decay, and unspeakable loss permeating the edges. Halcyon Digest and Parallax were both influenced by the passing of Jay Reatard and Broadcast's Trish Keenan, while Monomania detailed the impact of a "love affair" (Cox has described himself as asexual in the past) which left him devastated. With Fading Frontier, there was the initial impetus of reading into the fact that Cox was recently hit by a car; leaving him with a broken jaw and pelvis and on painkillers, as somehow instructive to how the album would turn out. Instead, the pain and delirium of the accident seems to have taken Cox and his bandmates into the realm of the serene; though the lyrical darkness which has always been a part of the writing, remains intact.
In fact, many will view Fading Frontier as a disappointment in the same way fans expected Halcyon Digest Volume II at the time of Monomania. At a brisk 36 minutes spread over 9 tracks, this is undoubtably Deerhunter's least fussy album to date, but that in no way means it's slight or inconsequential. The cult of Deerhunter could hear the sounds of breakthrough success--mainstream acknowledgement looming--or they could hear the same voice; fragile, uncertain, emotionally wrought, bursting through the accessible song structures and clear production. Sonically, Fading Frontier is closest to the dreamy pop of Halcyon Digest and the electronic minimalism of 2008's Microcastle, but the reliance on synthesizers is much more pronounced here than in the past. The whole retro revival of 80s culture notwithstanding, Deerhunter haven't so much appropriated shimmering keyboards and stadium rock into an art-rock package as they've tailored such influences to their own wholly unique sound. There's no mistaking Fading Frontier for anything other than a Deerhunter album; and even when the tenor of the tunes approaches poppy uplift, Cox's more opaque lyrics make the very idea of "positivity" within indie music partially irrelevant.
For instance, Cox lists a variety of painful experiences, including a gender reassignment gone awry, before intoning Take your handiclaps, channel them and feed them back until they become your strengths on opener "All the Same". It's a nifty inverse of the kind of likeability and positive vibes the song seems to be giving off, which is indicative of the record as a whole. I'm off the grid, I'm out of range, Cox sings over gorgeous synths washes and electronic drum beats on "Living My Life", and if one isn't paying too much attention, you'd think this was an optimistic sentiment coming from a man known for wallowing in his contradictions. Still, no matter how despairing or insecure Cox's thoughts may be, there's no denying that the music he's created, along with members Moses Archuleta, Lockett Pundt, and Josh McKay, remains blissfully upbeat. Aside from the tenaciously catchy "Snakeskin", which has remnants of deviant attitude, there's little dissonance to be found here. It's almost as if Fading Frontier signposts a rebirth; something that comes naturally and almost imperceptibly, after a cataclysmic fall. That Cox and company seem to be picking up the pieces left after the wake of Monomania is itself something of a narrative; though even here, you'd be hard pressed to gleam anything resembling conventional catharsis.
In many ways, Fading Frontier is Deerhunter's most delicate and graceful album yet. Of course, that doesn't make it their most memorable in terms of pure songwriting (Halcyon Digest gets that prize), nor does it jar one out of complacency like Monomania did, and there's certainly something to be said about the more polarizing, non-accessible material like 2005's Turn It Up, Faggot. Still, if narratives are built around catering or skirting expectations, then Fading Frontier is the work of a band whose narrative is as unconventional as 1970s experimental underground cinema. Not to content to rest on their laurels or simply pull a bizarre left turn, Deerhunter have condensed much of what they've accomplished already into something that feels both immediate as well as just out of reach. In this sense, album highlight "Ad Astra" perfectly encapsulates the feeling of floating weightlessly (backed by Brian Eno-esque synths and Cox's reverb-drenched falsetto) while still maintaining a sense of humanity. Unlike a lot of modern artists using electronic flourishes as a means for tweaking kitsch (i.e. Neon Indian, Toro Y Moi), Cox simply applies it in order to further his mental landscape of shifting emotions. If, as Cox states at the beginning of "Snakeskin" that I was born already nailed to the cross/ I was born with the feeling I was lost, then we should all be thankful that such self-loathing can sound so wondrous.