The conceit of Deerhunter’s eighth full-length, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?, is that it’s a science-fiction album about the present—the glorious, anxiety-ridden, fear-laden present. It may not be the case that people are more scared than they’ve ever been, though one could make a great argument for it. But we remain inundated, via social media and other information delivery services, by every nightmare and all possibilities of terror, world-round and without end. Recorded in the creative haven of Marfa, Texas, WHEAD? doesn’t communicate the sonic equivalent of those feelings. With the exception of its colder moments—the strange drip-drip percussion of “Tarnung” gives it a detached, alien chill—and the existential dilemmas of singer Bradford Cox’s lyrics, the album often feels like a salve. You get the feeling you’ve been thrust into a dream, temporarily torn from the present in order to observe it, understand what’s going on, and return to reality with new tools to keep that all-encompassing fear at bay.
From the opening, needly pumps of harpsichord on “Death In Midsummer,” Cox guides the listener through summery psychedelia, illustrating the absurdity of the rat race: “I go around and I feel how it fades / I walk around and I see how it fades / Walk around and you’ll see what’s fading.” The spritely “No One’s Sleeping” doubles down on the messaging, pointing to “duress” and “great unrest” but offering comfort in “the great beyond.”
The medium here is indeed the message. “Why make this album in an era when attention spans have been reduced to next to nothing, and the tactile grains of making music have been further reduced to algorithms and projected playlist placement?,” the WHEAD? press release reads. Though it’s loaded thematically with 21st-century tension, the album doesn’t cater to average, present-day attention spans. To experience it fully means immersing yourself in the dream, which takes some thoughtful listening—it favors hypnotism in place of catchiness, and Cox’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics are often cryptic, nearly opaque.
The spacey instrumental “Greenpoint Gothic” and melancholy slink of “Element” provide that meandering haze, but “What Happens To People?” finishes the first half of the record in the sound of deceptive brightness. “Détournement”—the title a nod to the artistic practice of “transforming artworks by creatively disfiguring them”—employs a disembodied voice bathed in synths to open side B on a slightly more optimistic note: “There is a form of art left,” the voice assures. “That we can imagine a world (re)drawn piece for piece, and we can contact the higher spirits from our electronic brains.”
Things turn blissfully hazy on “Futurism” and “Plains”—where Cox alludes to James Dean, who filmed Giant in Marfa the summer before his fiery death—held steady with joyous percussion. The final track, “Nocturne,” noted as a “live stream from the afterlife” in the liner notes, is notably more expansive than the rest of the album, beginning with some of Cox’s vocals partly broken up like a spotty radio transmission, and slowly easing into a crescendo of lush, repeating, peaceful melodies.
At the end of a write-up on the album, a question is posed: “What is popular music today a reaction to?” There probably isn’t a single, clear answer. Instead, maybe all it can do is lash out at the collective overwhelmingness of all the things we’d like to react to, but can’t possibly. If that response sounds like Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?—thoughtful, strange, spiritual, immersive, rewarding upon repeated and thoughtful engagement—things may be headed in a better direction.