Deerhunter is done with noise—at least for now. For most of the Atlanta band’s career, it’s been a defining trait. Their melodies, however strong, have been bound by the glue of feedback and distortion, if not partially obscured by those very same tools. And they wield it well, whether in the form of a kosmische-pulse post-punk set like Cryptograms, or a static-fucked swamp rock record like Monomania. But as much investment as Deerhunter has placed in noise, they’re not bound by it. Since at least 2008’s “Nothing Ever Happened,” they’ve tipped their hand that they’re really an excellent pop band with some avant garde tendencies, rather than the other way around. It would only make sense for them to eventually let those pop songs breathe and shine on their own.
Fading Frontier, the band’s sixth record, is where Deerhunter finally puts an end to their love affair with seething, shrieking, chaotic sound. It’s an album of simple beauty and remarkable clarity. Longtime fans probably won’t find this to be a terribly surprising development, but it’s the commitment that makes it noteworthy. A shimmering, beautiful pop song was usually only a guest star on albums past. Here it’s the main attraction. On a recently released interactive concept map, Deerhunter shared a lot of telling influences behind their latest release: Tears for Fears, R.E.M., the Pacific Coast Highway, Big Sur and, perhaps most poignant, getting hit by a car. Last year, Bradford Cox was struck by a vehicle while walking his dog, Faulkner, an event that left him in “incredible pain,” as he described it at the time. The arrival of Fading Frontier, however, is a statement of recovery.
There’s no primal scream to be found on Fading Frontier, but there’s definitely pain in the plainspoken, beautifully rendered songs. When we last caught up with the band, Cox was following a particularly abrasive muse through some deceptively simple songs, almost abandoning the dreamy gauze of co-songwriter Lockett Pundt’s compositions entirely. Here, Pundt’s aesthetic is the dominant one, the majority of songs of a piece with “Agoraphobia,” “Desire Lines” or “The Missing.” There’s more jangle than fuzz, more gauze than grime, and yet Cox’s own voice is the quietly dominant one. Their creative partnership pays off beautifully on most of the songs, as Cox’s lyrics are given the opportunity to shine without being obscured by sonic debris. It’s not always pretty, of course, but that’s what the music’s for. In leadoff track “All the Same,” he turns the second verse into a story about a man who changes sex, loses his wife and everything to live for because he’s bored. But it’s not always so demented. In that very same track he delivers a mantra of positivity that’d be worth repeating even if it didn’t come accompanied with gorgeous sheets of guitar: “Take your handicaps/ Channel them and feed them back/ Till they become your strengths.”
When Deerhunter does get a little weird, it’s more fun than menacing, particularly on the slithering, funky “Snakeskin,” wherein Cox narrates his own litany of misfortunes with gospel-like phrasing: “I was born already nailed to the cross/I was born with a feeling, I was lost.” For how much Fading Frontier seems to concern setbacks, pain, misfortune and misery, it’s even more about what comes next. The album’s best song, “Breaker,” juxtaposes Cox and Pundt’s voices in a dreamy harmony, accepting with peace that whatever happens will happen: “And when I die/ there will be nothing to say/ Except I tried/ not to waste another day trying to stem the tide.” It’s refreshing to hear such warmth on a Deerhunter record, particularly after one defined by rancor and difficulty. Fading Frontier is a comfortable record, and one that feels more like an open-armed greeting than just about anything they’ve released before. Cox definitely has a lot to get off his chest, and it seems more than ever that he’s doing it in the interest of finding a positive on the other side. He delivers a lot of memorable lines throughout, but the simplest one is also that which carries the most weight: “I’m living my life.”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.