Where next for Deerhunter in 2019? In their 18 odd years and 8 albums, they’ve progressed from the impetuous noise of their debut, through heavy psychedelia and garage rock, to the polished, dreamy strain of psych-pop of their last record. Acclaim has always followed close behind with the perennial critical darlings maintaining a fervent following. For frontman Bradford Cox it’s been a honing process as the project approaches his ideal sound and vision for the band, each successive release a step forward in the merging of pop and the avant-garde. With this, he has not been afraid to vocalise his displeasure with older material, effectively disowning their debut and ruing the messiness and amateur quality in sophomore effort Cryptograms (an album I personally will always go to bat for). It’s been a good while since Fading Frontier came out in 2015, a record Cox described as perfect, that contrastively came off to me as a bit of a damp squib at the time. What have they been cooking up in the studio over all this time – what’s the outcome three and a half years in the making? For the most part, we’ve received an even damper, soggier squib.
The release of Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? Makes perfect sense if you’ve followed the course of their career. The fiery beast of mid 00s Deerhunter has been tamed as youth fades and the members start the inevitable approach to middle age. An air of sophistication reigns about their newer work and their years of experience is palpable. Lockett Pundt probably can’t touch a guitar without a sonically pleasing, reverb coated 7th chord ringing out. For all intents and purposes they’ve cracked the indie formula at this stage; they know how to pump out catchy and somewhat left field rock songs. But therein lies the problem – on WHEAD? tracks feel pumped out, produced by a band on autopilot drifting with a lack of purpose. So much so that at times it doesn’t feel like the creation of real, tangible creative minds, but rather the soulless output of some algorithm fed with their least inspired material as input. Too often the performances come off as robotic, and too many sounds and textures fall flat.
The first single Death in Midsummer kicks things off in decidedly upbeat style with Cat le Bon guest featuring on harpsichord adding a baroque tinge. The chord progression does however feel quite telegraphed, especially given how up front it is presented, without a shroud of any real melody. Lyrically, we start off on a strong point as the track’s brightness is contrasted by Bradford mourning what we lose in our lives of interminable work (“They were in hills, They were in factories; They are in graves now, They were in debt to themselves; And what? Is it paid off now?”). Greenpoint Gothic, a ponderous retro synth instrumental, seems like rather pointless filler. When the xylophone reaches full form halfway through, the track sounds half like a rejected Human League backing track and half gothic cover of the original Crash Bandicoot soundtrack. The second single Element is another misstep. The verses in particular are remarkably clumsy and lackluster, and are simply bursting with ugly, stringy synth farts. The choruses aren’t a whole lot better thanks to Cox’s gratingly obnoxious vocal delivery.
When the shining hook of Futurism burst in straight from the off I thought finally, they’ve produced a real winner here – a gloriously positive anthemic piece of guitar pop. However, the hook appears to be all they bothered to write, as the rest of the track doesn’t even attempt to match or keep up with it. The sonically empty verses seem to just be waiting around for that dynamite hook to return and before you know it the song is done after just over two and a half minutes.
So that’s the bad, what’s the good? Amongst the mud there are definitely some decent to good songs here. The toe tapper Plains has both infectiously rhythmic and soaring interstellar phases condensed into a neat bite-sized two-minute chunk. We take a delightfully weird step away from the album’s monotonous cloud on Détournement, with a modulated Cox menacingly wishing hello to the citizens of the world while stating “Your struggles won’t be long, And there will be no sorrow on the other side.” The song itself presents as an act of détournement, particularly with regards to the tongue in cheek cheesiness of the instrumentation. Through a medium appropriated from the world of new age, faux spirituality it conveys its sinister and cynical message of damnation. Though it treads a fine line bordering on trite pretension, I’d say it just about gets away with it.
Crafting a trancelike groove has long been a strong point of the band. When a satisfying rhythmic pattern rises they are not afraid to ride it to completion. Looking back across their discography reveals this as a repeating pattern in some of their finest moments: Octet from Cryptograms, Nothing Ever Happened from Microcastle, Calvary Scars II form Weird Era Cont., Desire Lines from Halcyon Digest. In this territory they know what they are doing. They are modern masters of the motorik - contemporary krautrockers - indie androids. Try as they might to distance themselves from the perceived immaturity of their past work, they thankfully indulge once more, if a little sparingly. Tarnung in particular with its heavy minimalism influence, dueling xylophone ostinatos and warm saxophone tones (who can ever resist a saxophone, regardless of genre or context) heavily leans into pleasant hypnosis. The outro to No One’s Sleeping, another one of the stronger tracks, also isn’t afraid to run free and indulge in its climax for a good while. The album draws to a close in similar fashion with Nocturne. After stumbling through the disjointed first section, we’re rewarded with a pretty crescendo of thumping regularity and driving nostalgia. However, like the rest of the album, for all its sweetness it feels tempered and held back. We are left with a moment that just feels nice when it could have been stratospheric.
Truth be told, the highs on WHEAD? are not even in the same ballpark as those they reached 10 years ago. Their experience has made them tight as a band, but that tightness has manifested itself here as sterility. For a band that displays such chemistry when they play in a live setting, on this recording they sound distant and detached, brought together in a stone-faced duty to methodically produce ‘generic album number 8.’ There’s definitely enough good here to build an interesting EP, but you cannot afford so much filler on a 36-minute album. It’s far from a terrible album, I don’t think Deerhunter could ever produce something downright rotten. It is instead forgettable, safe, and milquetoast. At its worst it is offensive in its inoffensiveness, and at its best some palatable above-average indie rock, destined to be lost in the deep web of Spotify’s curated playlists.