Deerhunter have been around for a fair while now and continue to surprise as one of the remaining indie-rock innovators. Not content to rest on their laurels, they’ve moved from psychedelia to dream-pop to hard rock and now – well, they’re doing whatever they like. Fading Frontier most resembles Halcyon Digest, their most critically acclaimed work, although is suitably lighter and sees frontman Bradford Cox relaxing slightly. They haven’t pushed forward with experimentalism on Fading Frontier – as the title suggests, they’re musing on the retraction of anywhere new to go. It may be a large metaphorical concept, but it also applies to Deerhunter as a band willing to push the boundaries and finding new frontiers of music. Funnily enough, by not taking a huge step forward in the way 2013’s Monomania tried to, they achieve what feels like a sense of satisfaction with where they are at. But for a band so focussed on where to go next, they move very little on Fading Frontier.
The album is more psychedelic than it makes itself out to be. ‘Take Care’ is pure dream-pop and ‘Ad Astra’ is indebted to 60s psychedelia. ‘Take Care’ begins with synthetic drums and synths, sounding more like sped-up Beach House (a band Deerhunter is now more aligned with). The chorus of ‘Take Care’ pops into hazy basslines and layered vocals that wouldn’t have gone amiss on Cryptograms. Thankfully, the song doesn’t descend into tripped-out madness; anchored by the synthetic drums in the verse and more organic drums in the chorus which pop in with a Tame Impala-esque drum fill. The last half of the track has a beautiful bridge, accompanied by a clean guitar that cuts through the haziness and even a well-placed glockenspiel. It’s a shame Deerhunter don’t return to the dream-pop of ‘Take Care’ on more tracks because by the sound of it, they’ve perfected what it means to be psychedelic in the 21st century. Instead, scattered about the (short) tracklisting is a lot of hip-shaking indie-rock toned down from the abrasive Monomania into something more direct and arguably, better.
Another off-moment is ‘Leather And Wood’, a gem of a track which puts Bradford Cox front and centre, his vocals virtually right next to you and every noise that comes from his mouth (whether a lip smack, breath or croon) is captured. ‘I drove my car over the edge’ he sings in reference to his fixation with death on wheels, along with ‘The leather and the wood formed a ledge / I believe we can fly / I believe anything is real’. He stretches his real-life experiences into something bigger and wilder. You’ve heard ‘Snakeskin’, the lead single and most direct moment (at least, instrumentally) on Fading Frontier. In the track Cox is transformed into a funky frontman who commands the stage and the microphone – a position he should have been in for a long time. It’s an exaggerated, funky, white-hot song which is only faulted by the extended outro, a callback to Halcyon Digest’s extended dreaminess. The dreaminess comes back on ‘Ad Astra’, which contains all of the hallmarks of something like ‘Helicopter’ or ‘Sailing’. The synths are distorted, Cox’s voice withdraws to his softer vocals and all matter of beeps ripple across.
‘Carrion’ tops the album off perfectly with a semi-acoustic ballad. Cox promises ‘I will dig my hole, I will become a mole’ before the chorus of ‘What’s wrong with me?’. It’s a simple question, but links back to the first track, ‘All The Same’, where Cox sings ‘So turn your handicaps, channel them and feed them back / till they become your strengths’. Cox turns his own condition, Marfan Syndrome, into a form of empowerment. The lyrics throughout Fading Frontier come from two different camps – hiding from the world and going out into it, bleary-eyed but powerful. Cox comes back from being damaged by the world with cynicism and a love of the world and life and that’s pretty special. Paired with lush instrumentation, Fading Frontier poses itself as an answer to the question – where do we go from here?
Where they go is somewhere well-trodden but perfected. Deerhunter have been too busy ‘chasing the fading frontier’, as Cox sings on ‘Living My Life’ to enjoy what they have and what they’ve achieved up to this point. If Halcyon Digest got you warmed up with its intense dream-pop and psychedelia, Fading Frontier is going to appeal to you. But it’s better than Halcyon Digest – it’s more melodic, less foreboding and much more accessible for anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of hearing Deerhunter’s music yet. Fading Frontier isn’t a huge step forward – look what that did to Monomania – but it’s a consolidation of Deerhunter’s talents into a collage of fuzzy memories, anxieties and moments of joy. It simply is one of the best albums of the year so far.
Funnel Recommends: Take Care / Snakeskin / Ad Astra