Slow Burn: Deerhunter's 'Fading Frontier'

On August 18, 2016

by Marty Hill

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Trying to keep up with new records often feels like trying to plug a dam with a piece of chewing gum; the deluge is going to keep happening whether you like it or not, and you’re going to miss some things. The Slow Burn is our column where writers talk about albums they “missed”—which in today’s music Twitter era, could mean they didn’t listen to it in the 5 days around when it came out—and why they regret they didn’t get to the album till now. This edition covers Deerhunter's 2015 album, Fading Frontier. 

“Something that changed the world is just another thing on a playlist,” Bradford Cox recoiled as he discussed the devaluation of creativity in the modern age with Travis Holcombe in this KCRW interview. Fading Frontier, Deerhunter’s seventh studio record, had been released exactly four months prior - I’d had a copy for a little longer - and I felt guilty. I was ready to love Fading Frontier, but I just didn’t. Informed partly by a car accident which left Cox hospitalized, Fading Frontier was supposed to be a record of existentialism and mortality; exploring the thin line between life and death via the equally thin line of pop and dissonance. Deerhunter have always been a band with a gift for talking in guitars, but not here. The white funk effortlessness of “Snakeskin” was fun, and parts of the record felt spacious and reflective in a way that no other Deerhunter record really had before, but it just didn’t feel special. As Cox become increasingly frustrated with surface-level art discussion, I realized that I was complicit; Fading Frontier had merely fleshed-out my playlists.

I was happy that Deerhunter brought out a record in 2015, though. After the accident, Cox feasibly could have never written music again. Monomania could have been their requiem, but this record - even if I was to never fall for it  - brought Deerhunter back. They were playing in my city, playing a session at the radio station I help out at, and Cox had set about insisting that journalists ask him about obscure visual artists or the relationship between architecture and pop music, rather than the new record. On paper, it should’ve been a time as exciting as 2013, but the weeks passed and Fading Frontier continued to mean very little to me; I think I added “Duplex Planet” to a couple of playlists. I trawled through a bunch of reviews, longing for somebody to provide a detail of context that would unlock the record for me, or to stumble upon a phrase that would carve out a viewpoint from which to appreciate the LP: “Not the best Deerhunter record, but it’s pleasant and I’m glad to see Bradford looking healthy” seemed to be Fading Frontier’s accepted narrative. Deerhunter are better than that.

I had to leave the record alone for a while; it frustrated me immensely. It was pleasant, it was cohesive and Cox did seem in excellent form. I mean, at this point I had been giving this thing time on a fortnightly basis for about three months, I never disliked it. There is a reason, though, that Cox speaks so often about the bus stop-like culture of music consumption. He writes records that seep into you, inevitably, and manifest. Deerhunter records require patience and open-mindedness - which I was happy to give - but Fading Frontier seemed stubbornly ordinary by now. For the first time in my life, I felt genuinely betrayed by a record. Bradford Cox, somebody who I became fixated with in my adolescence, had routinely preached the importance of inhabiting art, viewing it from an isolationist perspective and experiencing it as what its creator intended, not comparing it to something else of the same timeframe or niche. Yet, Fading Frontier still felt hollow.

 


I fell in love with Fading Frontier on May 2nd 2016, over five months after its official release. As Deerhunter strutted through a sax-laden, percussion-focused rendition of ‘Living My Life’ on  The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, my relationship with the studio version - and resultingly the entire record - changed. I spent a lot of time with the record, increasingly desperate to lock into it, to appreciate it on the kind of level that Cox strides for; to become helplessly engulfed. When it didn’t happen, I ignored it and distracted myself with something entirely different. I never tried to live without it, and I couldn’t when I was asked to. I liked their “Late Show” version, it brought the record’s aesthetic to a live environment in a way that didn’t feel mechanical or translationary, but I craved the studio version: its walls of synthesizer melody, Cox’s removed vocal delivery, the seemingly ever-burning guitar chimes. I knew before I revisited the record that, finally, it’d blow me away. Rather than drift over my head, every impossibly-neat guitar melody seemed to manifest itself. Instead of keep adrift otherwise lifeless cuts, the rhythmic spine of the album acted as an anchor, not allowing attention to drift too far into Cox’s now infinitely interesting prose about youth, life’s unpredictability, and - most importantly - death. Whereas the beach imagery on “Breaker” had felt cheap and inherently indie rock before, it seemed nothing short of hypnotic. Atop a myriad of interwoven, reverbed guitar lines, Cox’s cry of “I’m still alive” now seems to evoke more than any other Deerhunter lyric ever has. Oh, how far from ordinary it is. I’d been expecting a record centred around the thin line of life and death, but I see now that that’s far too obvious for Deerhunter. Bradford Cox inhabited an entirely new mental state after his accident; void of urgency. Fading Frontier is a near-flawless exploration of that state - spacious, vast, free. It takes time to love, because you have to appreciate that the manic rush of Deerhunter’s discography has been shedded, but more is said with less here. Once you can appreciate the record as one made by somebody with a totally different mental state than Monomania or Halcyon Digest, you can be brought under its spell.

Sometimes, it takes a lesser version of something to allow you to fully appreciate the original. It’s funny, really, because that idea is so central to so many bands - the likes of Slowdive, Dinosaur Jr, Sleater Kinney - peaking in popularity after their days of making world-changing records. It takes imitation to expose the true genius of what came before, and Fading Frontier is a true one-off in that it took months, not decades, for its genius to transcend.

I think my experience with Fading Frontier is probably a side-effect of the hyperactive music consumption culture that Cox speaks so damningly of: If a record doesn’t initially live up to your expectations, it’s easy to find something new and exciting on the opposite end of the genre spectrum, but that satisfaction is temporary and an antidote. I knew that, ultimately, I’d fall in love with Fading Frontier.

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