On 2013’s Monomania, Deerhunter were the essence of angular fury. The album bristled with punkish angst and manic verve, half jerky Bo Diddley blues, half sinewy No Wave guitars. It was a raw, scabrous journey that echoed the razor slash aesthetics of the more brutal tracks from Cryptograms rather than the expansive melancholy of the accessible Halcyon Digest. It seemed as though the band were coiling up, moving inwards and it was difficult to see where they would go next, if anywhere. Then in 2014, Bradford Cox was hospitalised following a horrific car accident leaving him in severe pain and suffering from deep depression. Everything stopped and the previously ultra-prolific Cox remained uncharacteristically silent. Fading Frontier could have sunk deeper into the moribund psyche; it could have been a dispatch from the never ending twilight of mental illness, what was created instead was a new dawn.
Fading Frontier is a re-birth, in the thematic spirit of ‘Like New’ from the Fluorescent Grey EP, it’s about the perspective of the world tilting and transforming after a time of illness but now with the focus on healing and the redemptive power of home. On tracks like ‘All the Same’ and ‘Living my Life’, Bradford pushes the notion of loneliness as wilful isolation, a pleasing solitude, the peacefulness and freedom in being alone as he eulogises being ‘off the grid’ and ‘out of range’.
No longer caught in the self described ‘pink fog’ of memory and nostalgia that consumed and shaped previous Deerhunter albums, Fading Frontier concentrates on the future and the new. From the taster single ‘Snakeskin’ it was clear that this would be a figurative skin shedding. The track slinks into life, it positively swaggers, all chugging riff and snapping percussion, it is Deerhunter at their most thrilling and vivacious. As Bradford spits out lines about loneliness and frustration, as the noise of screeching breaks and car horns echo around him, he does not sound vulnerable or lost, he sounds positively powerful; strength and passion spilling out from him like a desert dwelling prophet, he has seen and, more importantly, he has survived.
This theme of survival and recovery is a thread sewn right through the album. The Deerhunter back catalogue is littered with the idea of the corporeal, the image of blood and bone fused together and then torn apart; of crucifixion and punishment, the diminishing shell of the worthless body inhibiting the beauty of the soul but on Fading Frontier there is a more forgiving tone. Cox directly addresses his accident and his mortality on the aching ‘Breaker’ (the first duet between Bradford and co-songwriter Lockett Pundt), a gentle dream-pop lullaby with soaring synths and a sky rocketing chorus, with the emphasis on the will to live- it is almost hymnal. Elsewhere, album closer ‘Carrion’ is a wistful plea to literally ‘carry on’ to attempt to continue to exist, to live a life no matter what circumstances and difficulties are faced. As Cox rasps the line ‘What’s wrong with me?’ over and over, its simplistic message is truly devastating.
Musically the album is more meditative and diverse than its stark, spiky predecessor. From the ambient swirl of the hypnotic ‘Leather and Wood’, the downbeat swing of ‘Take Care’ and the haunting electro-infused beauty of standout track ‘Ad Astra’, the band have embraced their varied influences in an effortlessly cohesive way. Working with Broadcast’s James Cargill and Stereolab’s Tim Gane seems to have injected a fresh, almost electronic element into their sound but without jettisoning the distinctive aural landscape of the band. The dissonant, fucked up Motown fug and doo-wop spirit remains whilst the outsider, rustic ‘Anthology of American Folk Music’ style is still intact with a sample of Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s ‘I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground’ used to link ‘Ad Astra’ to album closer ‘Carrion’.
After six albums, Fading Frontier is a distillation of the best of Deerhunter: a culmination of their strengths, a band at the apex of their musical journey, constantly surpassing themselves and solidly building towards perfection. Whether it is the ending of a chapter, a faultless swan song or a reinvigorating new beginning for the band remains to be seen. Whichever path is taken, after ten years of Deerhunter, Fading Frontier is finally a space they can truly call home.