Earlier this year, Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox was hospitalised after being hit by a car. Already a fascinatingly fragile presence both physically and on record, Cox, who is living with the genetic disorder Marfan syndrome, was in a neck brace and what he described as “incredible pain.” But perhaps it was that sudden brush with death that influenced Fading Frontier, the gentlest and most immediately likeable album that Deerhunter has ever made.
Coming after the gritty speed demon fantasies of their noisy 2013 album Monomania, Fading Frontier couldn’t be a more different experience. From the album’s beginning on the lovely “All the Same,” the basic tenets of Deerhunter’s ghostly sound – dreamy washes of reverb, silky guitars, intruding synth textures – are all present, but there is a warmth and sense of ease to the album that is not typically associated with the band.
At this point Deerhunter are indie rock royalty. Unlike other bands of a similar stature (Arcade Fire, Animal Collective), they have not pushed into self-important bombast, but continue to be as prolific and reliable as ever. With Cox as their lead songwriter (along with occasional contributions from guitarist Lockett Pundt), their songs often explore mortality, loneliness, and disconnect.
Perhaps the best example of this is on “Duplex Planet,” a bright piece of pop that is premium Deerhunter. Amid flurries of chiming keys and against a chugging backbeat complete with tambourine, Cox sings “I’m out of memory, I’m losing sleep. After the body’s gone, the scent remains.” There is a sense of drifting throughout the album, a sense of coming to terms with the transience of life. The chorus of stunning single “Breaker” finds Cox admitting “The ocean is strong; I cannot stem the tide.”
At less than forty minutes, Fading Frontier is a short album, but it’s not a slight one. The band branches out on the lengthy “Leather and Wood,” a lurching piece full of discordant interjections that seems to mirror the expressive and lonely surrealism of the album cover. That track is immediately followed by the country-ish funk of “Snakeskin” which sounds like Station to Station era David Bowie and features a boisterous vocal performance.
The most surprising moment on the record comes when the droning miasma of the treacle-slow “Ad Astra” gives way to a sample of Bascom Lamar Lunsford singing the traditional folk song “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground.” The 1928 recording, made famous by its inclusion in musicologist Harry Smith’s seminal Anthology of American Folk Music, is a potent wish for escape – to hide away in the ground. Like an important piece of the jigsaw puzzle, it sheds a great deal of light on the insular nature of the record and the way it finds a kind of peace in solitude, as well as its examination of the often complicated or contradictory relationship between the self and the body.
While Deerhunter are not necessarily sonic innovators, like they have been on their most-lauded albums, that doesn’t really matter when their latest set of songs is not only compulsively listenable, but also poetic and thought-provoking. Fading Frontier transcends any indie rock clichés that Deerhunter themselves created by being perhaps their most focused record to date. It sounds effortless in its construction and execution, and it’s one of the best indie rock records you’re likely to hear this year.
Fading Frontier is out now on CD, vinyl and digital formats.