In 2013, Atlanta-based indie-rock act Deerhunter released its sixth studio album, Monomania, a work that left many scratching their heads. In ways both sonic and thematic, it was a significant and ragged left turn away from the shimmering, frizzy sounds that marked the group’s masterful mid-career releases Microcastle (2008) and Halcyon Digest (2010). Subsequent profiles and interviews have revealed that the band’s members, and frontman Bradford Cox in particular, were dealing with a number of emotionally unsettled issues, and the music from that time certainly reflects that. By the same token, if Deerhunter’s latest record, Fading Frontier, is any reflection of the band’s greater mental state, things are looking up.
It’d be too easy to call this new record a return to form, because in many ways it feels and sounds much more like a maturation. There’s a confidently dreamy quality running through most of the songs on Fading Frontier that gives off the impression of a group at peace with both itself and its place in the musical world. “I did want to make a record of Friday night music,” Cox said in a recent interview. “But honestly, in this day and age, Friday night music would be Katy Perry. And I’m not capable of doing that.”
The closest Deerhunter comes to creating a “Friday night” song here is the single “Snakeskin,” which is far and away the funkiest, liveliest song on the album; it has a great deal in common with the posture and aesthetic of The Black Keys’ soul-inflected 2010 album, Brothers. It feels equally fun and foreboding, with swanky guitar rhythms playing off a steady stream of handclaps and elongated vocal phrasings: “I was born already nailed to the cross / I was born with the feeling I was lost.”
It should be noted, however, or maybe warned, that “Snakeskin” is an outlier, sticking out like a sore thumb from the other eight songs on Fading Frontier. In interviews leading up to its release, Cox has cited influences like Australian new-wave rockers INXS for inspiring this record, but it sounds far more reminiscent of the swirling psychedelic dream-pop of Deerhunter’s late-2000s contemporaries Of Montreal, especially on the album closer, “Carrion.” But then again, that feeling might be accentuated by the similarities between Cox’s singing voice and that of Of Montreal frontman Kevin Barnes.
Other songs that roam considerably into the dreamier realm include “Breaker,” which prominently features a spunky, reverberating guitar sound similar to the one that has informed Mac DeMarco’s entire discography; “Living My Life,” which recalls a more minor-key take on late-period Wilco; and “Ad Astra,” which is driven forward by some of the most thickly layered and gorgeously fuzzed-out synth rhythms you’ve ever heard, before closing out with a snippet from the 1928 Bascom Lamar Lunsford song “I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground.” It’s future and past working together in beautiful, symbiotic harmony.
Deerhunter has spent the better part of a decade creating some of the most interesting and lively records on the indie-rock scene. As the bands that made up indie rock’s celebrated mid-’00s creative renaissance continue their inevitable collective march toward middle-age comfort, Deerhunter should be applauded for refusing to rest on its laurels by actively seeking to make a record with purpose and scope. The goals and the stakes are real for them, and in Fading Frontiers, the effort is blindingly evident.