Deerhunter returns on serene, refreshing “Fading Frontier”

By Jackson Maxwell

Published with permission from Superfly Productions.
(Published with permission from Superfly Productions.)

Deerhunter’s “Fading Frontier” is not necessarily the “return to form” many people have been advertising it as.

With just nine songs that clock in at a scant total of 36 minutes, it is the shortest, most simple album Deerhunter has made. It’s also completely unlike anything else in its discography, so calling it a “return to form” would not make any sense.

Instead, it is a true Deerhunter album, rather than the aggressive, reactionary, Bradford Cox show that was their last album – 2013’s “Monomania.” The headline here shouldn’t be that Cox – Deerhunter’s lead singer and primary songwriter – has a new, more positive lease on life after a nasty car accident, it’s that his new outlook has let the always-astounding, ever-evolving ensemble that is Deerhunter out of the box.

Though the quartet never takes “Fading Frontier” to the endless psychedelic wastelands of their 2010 album “Halcyon Digest” or the senses-numbing noise-pop of 2008’s “Weird Era Cont.,” it’s wonderful just to hear the band operating at full capacity once again.

Opener “All the Same” has familiar guitars that jangle and tumble from the heavens in slow motion, as Cox pries himself out after a long period of lyrical hibernation. After two verses of seeming contentment, Cox dips into far darker, more familiar waters in the third verse: “My friend’s dad got bored/changed his sex and had no more/no more wife, no more kids/nothing left to live with.”

Cox seems to turn it up 10,000 notches here to quickly dispel any thoughts that this would be Deerhunter’s domesticated, adult contemporary album. It’s a sort of quiet defiance that comes up again on the following track, the stirring “Living My Life.” “I’m off the grid, I’m out of range,” Cox muses in what may be one of his greatest vocal performances with Deerhunter to date.

Rather than utilizing coiled guitars and piles of distortion to mark his territory, Cox instead croons about journeys like “chasing the fading frontier.”

On “Breaker,” the first recorded duet between Cox and Deerhunter’s other guitarist/ songwriter Lockett Pundt, Cox’s voice has a startling serenity. “I’m alive!” he sings, while letting Pundt tackle the uncertainties of the chorus. Like they are instrumentally, Pundt and Cox are absolutely flawless vocal foils for each other, with their voices complimenting every nuance of the other’s.

Cox then takes helm of the ship for the album’s second section, piloting confidently through the bright, up-tempo sheen of “Duplex Planet,” the murky ballad of “Take Care” and the very Atlas Sound-esque “Leather and Wood.”

“Leather and Wood,” with its spidery guitars, off-beat piano and Cox’s whispery vocals, is the only hiccup of “Fading Frontier,” as it feels much more like a plodding, muddy Cox home recording than a woodshedded, labored-over Deerhunter track.

Fortunately however, what immediately follows is the most extroverted song Cox has ever written. “Snakeskin” bursts with attitude, with Cox pouting all the way through. “I was born already nailed to the cross/I was born with the feeling I was lost,” he snarls, daring the listener to disagree with his self-styled identity as a lost poet.

Pundt answers Cox’s cockiness with the measured, atmospheric of beauty of “Ad Astra.” Continuing his status as Deerhunter’s ace in the hole, Pundt floats his voice over a soup of warm, bubbly synths, stopping the album in its tracks while he’s at it.

And although Cox asks himself, “What’s wrong with me?” multiple times on closer “Carrion,” he shoves his own self-doubt aside with the album’s final lines, “Even though you’re gone/I still carry on/it’s the same big sea/it’s the same to me.”

On “Fading Frontier,” Bradford Cox finally seems less interested in being “Bradford Cox” than he is in just being the leader of Deerhunter. Though Deerhunter has sounded more confrontational, and all-encompassing in the past, the band’s evolution into a pleasant rock-with-a-capital-R band is a natural one.

Cox may have a more positive outlook on life but he and the band behind him are as wily, chameleonic and unpredictable as ever.

Jackson Maxwell can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter at @JMaxwell82.