It’s tempting to describe Fading Frontier, Deerhunter’s seventh album, as the beginning of the band’s adult phase. This is an album that’s warm, content, concise, and all too happy to remind you of past glories; one more step toward a pejorative like dad-rock, and they’re soundtracking Starbucks lines and Volvo ads.
But all that comfort is a bit misleading: settling into some version of domestic satisfaction is just the latest curveball from a band that’s traditionally thrived on unpredictability. Deerhunter’s last album was an acid bath, one that disintegrated the band’s sprightly rock songs and oozed disillusionment, and Fading Frontier is just as radical a reinvention in its own way. Hearing this band at rest means hearing something new.
Deerhunter has spent its career digesting and queering half a century of American rock music: the hunky crooners of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, garage rock and power-pop, the noisy experiments of Sonic Youth, the eerie Southern gothic work of R.E.M. The band’s early music was unpredictable and radiated oddball charisma, and each of its albums grappled with an essential loneliness in a different way.
2007 breakout Cryptograms toggled between brooding ambient passages and roaring punk before breaking open into a tender, poppy final third; 2010’s landmark Halcyon Digest was a piercing collection of stories that captured the isolation and potential sadness of gay life. That sadness festered and culminated in Monomania, an album fueled by rage and caked in rust just for kicks.
This is the first time the band's looked back instead of pushing forward
Fading Frontier is the first Deerhunter album that looks back instead of pushing forward, searching for a new way to express the same feeling. It’s also the band’s first album since frontman Bradford Cox’s devastating 2014 car accident, an event that transformed his life and outlook. "It erased all illusions for me," said Cox in an interview with Pitchfork earlier this year. "When I got hit by the car, I just felt no interest in anything else." In that light, Fading Frontier is the sound of looking back on a rough patch in your life and saying, "Wow, that was terrible! I guess things aren’t so bad right now."
If there’s such a thing as a "Deerhunter sound," this is it: a dreamy melange of old ballads, spiky noise, motorik chug, glam as delivered by Bowie at his gayest, and the kind of placid synth doodles you’d hear from Stereolab in the ‘90s. (Cox has collaborated with that band’s Laetitia Sadler within his solo work as Atlas Sound.) It’s possible to slot almost every song on Fading Frontier alongside some other release in the band’s discography. Opener "All the Same" isn’t far from "Revival" and "Memory Boy," the pining pop nuggets twinned on Halcyon Digest; "Duplex Planet" sounds like a grown-up, showered version of "VHS Dream," a chiming highlight from 2008’s underrated Weird Era Cont. Even the confident strut of lead single "Snakeskin" has a few obvious predecessors, descending from songs like "Coronado" and some of the work on Cox’s 2011 solo album Parallax.
There’s a lyrical familiarity to Fading Frontier, too — it’s still strange and distinctive, but you can hear Cox linking back to the characters and events of Deerhunter releases gone by. The father mentioned on "All the Same" who "got bored / changed his sex and had no more" joins Dennis Cooper protagonists and amateur drag queens in Cox’s catalog of sad, confused queer men; the dry ice and corpses of "Take Care" align nicely with the morbid fantasies of the Fluorescent Grey EP released in 2007.
On one level, the path Deerhunter’s taking with Fading Frontier is familiar from the discographies of dozens of other bands that manage to stick around past the 10-year mark and beyond. You get older, happier, more comfortable; your life changes, and you find a sound you like and explore it. But the shift this album represents also happens to make sense within the context of the approach the band’s used its whole career. Deerhunter have always been synthesists, not innovators: they take any number of sounds that came before them and toss them all together, and the magic’s in the strange, swirling brew that results.
Deerhunter might be the most important American rock band of the last decade
You can argue this has made them the most important, influential American rock band of the last decade. It’s a claim that might’ve been devalued in recent years, but it still means something, and it’s hard to imagine anyone from Majical Cloudz to Viet Cong existing without Deerhunter coming first. Is it really so unreasonable to suggest that Deerhunter has begun digesting itself? It’s what they’ve always done. Fading Frontier isn’t as vital or as thrilling as the high points in the band’s discography, but it’s capable and calm; spending time with it feels like visiting an old friend who’s managed to get themselves together after years of twisting in the wind. If this is the sound of settling down, it doesn’t seem so bad.