As far as Deerhunter have come, they have yet to cement themselves as a band that have definitive ‘phases’. The Beatles pioneered a new phase in conjunction with every facial hair rework, The Strokes have had two (shit and not shit) and still, Bradford Cox and his band of contorted cohorts, after 14 years, have not been afforded that luxury - they’re just not consistent enough.
And that’s no comment on their proficiency as musicians - quite the opposite. No other band have wriggled into so many crevices of guitar music and still remained a newfangled interest over the years. Their last effort, Monomania, was a claustrophobic junkyard party with jagged protrusions; reflective of Bradford’s headspace at the time. So if Monomania was the hedonistic descent, Fading Frontier is the morning after, as the rubble clears and Bradford dusts the residue of mania from his shirt.
Following a near-fatal car accident last year, Bradford Cox spiralled into a deep rut, physically, emotionally and spiritually. After rehabilitation, what remains of the fulcrum collapse is Deerhunter's most sobering record since the first half of their 2007 album, Cryptograms. All the band’s character tropes remain: effect-laden guitars, ghostly melodies that are almost unrecognisable, and a strong helping of a panoramic personality from Cox.
Instrumentally, Fading Frontier is quintessentially stripped back - the record wouldn't be a coherent piece of Deerhunter's discography if it was a gun-ho rock record. Even the way the band’s names are presented in the liner notes is indicative of a minimalist direction, one they didn't choose to take, but was the predestined method behind this madness.
But this reductive overarch does not always reflect compositionally. For every slinking and bleedingly obvious call for attention (‘Snakeskin’), Fading Frontier provides the ambient, and generally more engaging moments like on the clandestine sentimentality behind ‘Take Care’, dual vocal serenade of ‘Breaker’ or disjointed closer, ‘Carrion’. These tracks moor onto the new wide-open palette the band have emerged with, following the Monomania hangover that came from forcing their sound into garbage cubes.
Opening track ‘All The Same’, is a bare-bones epitaph to the underdog resistance. “Take your handicaps / Channel them and beat them back / Till they become your strengths”. What we have here is the rooted philosophy behind punk. It doesn’t sound like punk or even have the antagonising aesthetic the band channeled in their formative years, but Fading Frontier is a demonstration of that profundity is not always as simple as it seems.
What makes the album shine is that, for the first time in a long time, Cox refuses to cower behind a barrier of ambiguity - and benefits ultimately for that fact.