It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been closely following this band to hear me observe that lead singer and songwriter Bradford Cox is a walking mass of contradictions. But it struck me hard when listening to Deerhunter’s latest album and recalling two separate interviews Cox did with Pitchfork in 2013 and 2015. In the latter, whilst promoting the 80s pop nostalgic Fading Frontier, he claimed: “when I was young, foggy nostalgia was such a part of my shtick… I’m not as interested in the pink fog of nostalgia now.” In the former, whilst promoting the 90s garage rock nostalgic Monomania, when talking about his musical inspirations from Hank Williams to Bo Diddley and John Lee Hooker: “That’s what’s missing from indie culture, though: Bo Diddley and blackness. There’s a struggle that exists in black music and hillbilly music from a certain era. Old music resonates with me, new music doesn’t.”
Old music resonates with me, new music doesn’t. That sounds an awful lot like the pink fog of nostalgia to me. And you can hear that pink fog all over Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?, but with rather different old musical heroes as reference points. The album opens with harpsichord and closes with piano, with glockenspiel used throughout, and which taken together with the reference to “village green” in “No One’s Sleeping” unmistakably recalls the Village Green Preservation Society era of The Kinks. Meanwhile, the echoey production harks back to the desert soundscapes of Brian Eno’s atmospheric work on The Joshua Tree, which is apt because Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? was recorded in the Texan desert city of Marfa.
That should result in an interesting collision course of classic English and American sounds and cultural reference points. And in “No One’s Sleeping”, it does, in an unusual tribute to the murdered British MP Jo Cox with downbeat lyrical details about violence flourishing in England, but with drummer Moses Archuleta providing a surprisingly upbeat tempo and Bradford Cox gifting it with an unusually pretty melody. Driving American rock and British existential despair therefore coexist, and complement each other in disturbing ways throughout the track’s runtime.
Elsewhere, though, the songwriting falters. “Détournement” is a spoken-word piece performed through a vocal filter that immediately recalls Laurie Anderson, yet has none of her keen wit or ingenious wordplay, and musically it feels only half-formed. “Tarnung” also sounds unfinished, an unsatisfying work-in-progress with vocals aiming for choral grandeur that fall way short, and an eerie production that makes it sound like it was recorded in a crypt. On many tracks the extended codas drive the songs well past their limit of toleration, particularly on the closing “Nocturne”, where the last 4 minutes are given over to instrumental interplay, a duel between pizzicato and synthetic playing styles, which has no clear function and becomes quickly aimless, tedious, a real drag.
The problem of no longer hiding behind the guitar scuzz that made Monomania and particularly Halcyon Digest sound so grand is that Deerhunter are more out in the open than ever and need to supply stronger tunes to justify their poppier production choices. Using bucketloads of echo and distorting Bradford Cox’s vocals isn’t enough to create interest. Which makes it doubly exciting when a genuinely exciting track emerges from the mix, such as “Plains”.
“Plains” leaps out of the speakers as soon as you press play, with syncopated drumming and synths dragging you straight into the immediately memorable chord progression. A curious song about a James Dean classic, Giant, it captures some of the epic grandeur of that film, and in the chorus some of its central dilemma: “Oh, James/You’ve got no reason to stay in these plains”. It’s all a bit daft and yet expansive at the same time, with the liberated synths really conjuring up images of swooping over a desert plain. It’s a strange mixture that really works.
Elsewhere, the theme is mainly death. Bradford Cox doesn’t just sing “Winter is coming/Beware” to get down with the Game of Thrones fans, he sings it from deep down inside a well of pessimism. He sees a future where people “quit holding on”, watch their own lives “fade away”, and then are “completely gone”. Cox claims that his latest bout of pessimism isn’t related to politics, not even on “Death in Midsummer”, where he explicitly references workers in the hills and factories. He had this to say about the song in an interview with NPR:
This song, really, to me, is not a political song as much as it might seem. It’s more of a song about the people who are caught – the people that suffer the consequences of these political push-and-shoves, which is – I guess is particularly poignant at this moment, where the government’s shutdown, and a lot of people are kind of caught in the crossfire.
People getting caught up in political push-and-shoves? That sounds an awful lot like politics to me. So don’t be surprised if Bradford Cox’s latest bout of depression is really to do with Donald Trump, and the related rightwing swing in the UK that resulted in the murder of Jo Cox. He’s just too much of a walking mass of contradictions to be able to admit to it in plain terms.