For all their nonthreatening and unassuming familiarity, the 14-year-old Deerhunter are a hard band to pin down. In a recent “batshit” interview, Bradford Cox confirmed this when he declared, “It all just comes from nowhere,” confounding our hopes that his band’s music could be encapsulated in a few neat and tidy epigraphs. At first glance, the trajectory the Georgian four-piece have traced seems to corroborate his avowals of creative nihilism and unconsciousness: verging from the “ambient punk” days of Cryptograms to the heady shoegazing of Microcastle and the “nocturnal garage” of Monomania, their wayward and unpredictable turns have frustrated the notion that Cox, Pundt, McKay and Archuleta are following a single unified vision and executing a single unified plan. However, aside from the recurring motifs of encroaching tides and dying stars, even the name of their sixth (seventh) album suggests either that they’re drawing to close to the end of some prescribed course, or that it’s withdrawing away from them.
Given their contrary and willfully evasive inclinations, it might simply be the case that what the mercurial Fading Frontier laments is less the passing of some definite creative or biographical goal, and more the passing of the idea that, one day, they’d figure out what the hell such a goal might be. Beating opener “All the Same” has Cox rising over spit-shined guitars and awakening organs to profess, “I could leave or I could stay/ Wouldn’t matter much to me,” as if none of the walks of life he’s ever considered or pursued have calmed his restless spirit enough to convince him that it’s his walk of life. He admits during an energized spike in the song’s nascent twinkle that he can see a “Light up there” beckoning him towards a better future, yet at the same time his recollections of a friend’s sexuality-/gender-swapping father and the constant refrain of “It’s all the same” combine to reveal that even the most drastic of life changes would do nothing to overhaul his basic existence. That is, to overhaul “my home”, the home that houses “no comforts, save for air.”
And it’s with reference to this comfortless, “cold” and seemingly unchangeable core of self that Fading Frontier proceeds to illuminate the band’s disenchantment with idealism, hopes, expectations and ambition. In the synth-splashed “Living My Life”, Cox once again broaches it and its nakedness when he sings, “I’m off the grid/ I’m out of range,” confessing in parallel with a treacly guitar melody that he occupies a kind of indeterminate nonexistence as an equally indeterminate nonentity who can’t be “placed” by other people or located in relation to them. The song’s general mood of open-air spaciousness and desertion is appropriate to this existential nudity, which is later revealed during the vaguely new-age chorus as having been stripped down ever further by his all-consuming preoccupation with “Chasing the fading frontier,” a frontier that, like the “amber waves of grain” he refers to during the verse, is “turning grey again.”
In view of this nod to “America the Beautiful,” it might be tempting to read Fading Frontier as a subtle political commentary of sorts, as a mournful witness to the death of the American Dream or of the hope that the Obama Administration would actually change something. That said, there are no other explicit references to the USA throughout the LP’s nine deviating tracks, so it’s arguably more compelling to interpret it on a personal and artistic level.
Compelling, since it appears as though Cox delves, for example, into the Marfan syndrome that not only afflicts him, but may also partly underlie his discontented indifference to every “fading frontier.” Such a delving occurs during the funk attack of “Snakeskin,” in which he wails, “I was born nailed to the cross/ I was born with a feeling, I was lost,” perhaps conceding to the track’s squelchy staccato that, from the very beginning of his days, he was congenitally predisposed against ever being comfortable, healthy or happy enough to wholly appreciate the things he did and tried in life. In its chugging final verse, the jangling bulk of the guitars hound him into snarling, “I cried and I choked, I was sick and I was boney,” while an acknowledgement that such a sickness might have weighed against a balanced or sane enjoyment of things comes in the previous verse: “I lost my marbles all over the pink, pink cage.”
Moreover, it’s possibly because of this sickly cage and the dissatisfaction it has fed into that Fading Frontier showcases a Deerhunter who sleeplessly try their hand at almost every indie subgenre available to them. Not satisfied by the roughly hewn garage rock of Monomania or the elegantly hewn dream pop of Halcyon Digest, they find themselves dipping into a spacey vibe with the likes of the harpsichord-laden “Duplex Planet” and the Kraut-futuristic “Ad Astra,” into downbeat ambient with “Leather and Wood” and its fractured piano, and into charging funk with the aforementioned “Snakeskin,” which after the abstrusely plaintive “Leather and Wood” comes as a complete shock to the senses. In fact, the romp is so out-of-the-blue that, rather than undermining the cohesion and unity of the album, it reinforces its themes of indifference and disillusionment, of regarding everything as the “all the same” and of being too restive to settle in one particular area for too long.
Nevertheless, this unsettled eclecticism notwithstanding, Fading Frontier does in fact sport some of Deerhunter’s most conventional and poppy material. To whit, the harmonizing chorus of second single “Breaker” wouldn’t sound too incongruous on an R.E.M. or Tom Petty album, an analogy which is none-too surprising considering how the pair were listed on the band’s interactive map of influences for the album. Despite the risk of its inspiration turning it into a somewhat inoffensive and staid affair, the song closes out with a grandiose coda of synths and electronic strings, and also continues to play on the “fading frontier” subtext that permeates and deepens much of the album. Amid glittering FX and arpeggios, Cox sings of “the stars/ That are slowly dying,” once more betraying a suspicion that there aren’t any ideals, dreams or objectives left to shoot for, or that they were a mere illusion or impossibility from the very start.
What such “ideals, dreams or objectives” might have been for Cox is only something us critics can treat with idle speculation. However, even though we don’t know quite enough about him (or psychology for that matter) to penetrate into the depths of his psyche, it’s not too outlandish to propose that what’s been “fading” and “graying” is precisely the belief that music presents him with an escape route from his sometimes turbulent existence. As Fading Frontier repeatedly attests via its demoralized lyrics and sharply glazed mix of indie, synth pop, funk and space rock, the path he and his band began to chart with Turn It Up Faggot hasn’t done much to change his fixations, frailties and failings. Therefore, rather than continuing down “the back roads” (“Breaker”) that don’t lead anywhere, they’ve forked in multiple random directions, jadedly abandoning the musical promise that — as “Living My Life” puts it — has become a “darkened stage.” Yet they certainly don’t sound jaded on the album, and in spite of the possibility that it represents a band who have reached the end of their “natural” creative arc and are now experimenting with whatever they can, it’s a remarkably consistent album that somehow joins a finely tuned pop sensibility with a crudely wayward adventurousness. Most likely, Cox’s apparently damaged and troubled essence will ensure that he grows dissatisfied with it after a few months, but luckily the rest of us have something to savour for a much longer time to come, even if it doesn’t quite embody a new frontier itself.
[This is an earlier version of a review that was published by Tiny Mix Tapes: http://www.tinymixtapes.com/music-review/deerhunter-fading-frontier]