By David A. Bene
Situations of personal catastrophe, especially those that force us to come face-to-face with our own mortality, can have a huge impact on our frail human psyches. Such circumstances tend to change us. For artists, these moments can often lead to grand artistic statements that can often betray feelings of hopelessness and despair, as they are forced to come to grips with the transience of human existence. You would especially expect such a statement from someone like Bradford Cox, Deerhunter’s ever-dramatic frontman, who was hit by a car last fall and seriously injured. This calamity has obviously affected Cox, but the resulting statement is not what might have been expected.
Bradford Cox has always been a restless sort. Personal satisfaction has never been a primary trait. He has at different junctures both decried and reveled in his outsider status. But instead of pushing Cox to further despair, the accident has seemingly made him content, willing to look at the world with new eyes. Instead of producing something dark and foreboding, it has led instead to the bright and cheerful sounding Fading Frontier, a far cry from 2013’s sneering and angry Monomania.
Right from the start, Cox is willing to address the accident, and he never shies far from the subject throughout. Twinkling guitars and relaxed keyboards highlight album opener “All The Same”, in which he addresses perseverance (“You should take your handicaps/Channel them and feed them back/Till they become your strength) and the futility of chasing absolute happiness in the here-and-now. He’s not afraid to admit that he has changed, but that change has more to do with the pointlessness of trying to fit into other people’s perceptions of ‘normalcy’ (“I tried not to waste another day trying to stem the tide,” he sings on the dreamy “Living My Life”). The same theme reappears in the soft lilt of “Take Care” and the pleasingly disjointed “Leather and Wood,” which comes across as moody and off kilter, with Cox reverting to his slurry, spitting vocals of yore over a plaintive piano.
Of course, we must keep in mind that this is a Deerhunter album, and the rest of the band is in tip-top shape on this outing. Because Cox is such a striking presence, it is often assumed that he is Deerhunter, and that the rest of the band follows lockstep in place to his every whim. This is not true. In fact, never before has Deerhunter sounded so in sync as a band. Longtime drummer Moses Archuleta finds himself taking a more prominent place in the mix than ever before, while guitarist Lockett Pundt (the frontman of Lotus Plaza and a wonderful talent in his own right) capably supports the proceedings with his tasteful playing. Pundt also shares lead vocals with Cox on the bright and sunny “Breaker,” a beautiful song that is truly one of the album’s standouts.
Most of Fading Frontier is incredibly cohesive, with the songs melding easily into a single ‘piece’. That is, until we reach first single “Snakeskin,” which seems well outside of the Deerhunter playbook. Yes, we’ve actually found a Deerhunter song that you can dance to. This is a classic slice of mid-70’s Bowie, and is a song that could definitely serve as Cox’s signature number, giving us a whirlwind tour of his life, from being born with a genetic defect (Marfan Syndrome), to his search for happiness and validation, and on to his accident and convalescence. This shot from left field then proceeds directly into Pundt’s lone contribution, the spacey “Ad Astra,” which sounds like it could have come straight off of The Pleasure Principle. Poetic in a way that Cox’s songs are not, “Ad Astra” is a lyrical and musical outcast on this album, spawned by Pundt’s recent synthesizer explorations. Never mind that, though…it stands on its own quite nicely, thank you.
Deerhunter have never been easy to pigeonhole. They have had many sides to their sound, ranging from garage rock, to dream pop, to neo-psychedelia, to shoegaze, almost always propelled by the singular vision of Bradford Cox. Of course, you could always count on a restlessness bordering on anxiety and a defiance bordering on desperation. But Cox and the band no longer appear desperate. They willingly acknowledge death but balance it with optimism (album closer “Carrion,” a term for decaying flesh, is used as a homophone for ‘Carry On’). Time and travails have brought them to the realization that there is no utopia in this world of ours. We have no idea what is to happen next. We are assigned to our lot in life, and we must make the most of it, because we cannot control it. Our only hope is an afterlife (“I believe we can die/I believe we can live again,” Cox sings on “Leather and Wood”), and until then, we must look for a comfort zone and be content. This is most definitely not the grand ‘statement’ we thought we would have expected from Bradford Cox and Deerhunter.
David A. Bene is a freelance journalist who, during the day, works at a ‘real’ job bringing home the bacon. But at night, when everything comes alive, he can’t help but regularly indulge in two of his greatest passions…writing and music. Put the dude at a corner table with a laptop and some tunes and what do you get? Why, the guy who writes album reviews for Live from the Internet, of course! David, who has authored two books, resides in Independence, KY with his wife and four (yes, four) kids. Read more work from David here.