Shortly before Deerhunter’s seventh full-length, Fading Frontier, leaked, I was engaged in an online conversation about Deerhunter that concluded with me asserting that they are the most consistently excellent and all-around best American band of the 2000s, a belief I hold in real life as well. Hearing first single “Snakeskin” for the first time put a small dent in my faith, something which listening to Fading Frontier in full did little to repair. This has nothing to do with the touted accessibility of the record; Deerhunter deserve to be the biggest band in the world, or at the very least bigger than Tame Impala. It is more a matter of placement in the band’s catalogue. Coming after the progressive and corrosive Monomania, Fading Frontier feels like a slight step back.
Having gone from the noisy grandeur of Turn It Up, Faggot to the sweeping, sometimes transcendent opulence of Microcastle and Halcyon Digest — and then of course back to grittier climes on Monomania — Deerhunter are not ones to stick to any set style. Nor should they. The Sonic Youth-esque whirl of “Spring Hall Convert”, from breakthrough Cryptograms, is just as masterful as the dreamy stateliness of Halcyon Digest single “Helicopter”. Yet, any stylistic departures here feel a little forced, most evident in the funk riff on “Snakeskin”.
If the execution isn’t fully there, however, it’s still more fascinating to hear Deerhunter take on whatever style Bradford Cox endeavors than most other upper-tier indie rock bands. As little as I liked “Breaker” when I first heard it, its hooks are irresistible and Cox’s and Lockett Pundt’s vocals fit together wonderfully. The album falters when dream pop sensibilities overtake (as on second track “Living My Life”) and thrives when Deerhunter are doing what they do best. Title track “All The Same” is idiosyncratic in both melody and lyrical content, but also brings an energy that is vibrant and engaging. “Carrion” sounds a bit like a Monomania outtake scrubbed and shined, and offers a nice shot of nihilism to balance out any tunefulness. Two of the strongest tracks get some nice assists: “Duplex Planet” has a striking electric harpsichord cameo by Tim Gane of Stereolab, while “Take Care” sees James Cargill of the brilliant Broadcast taking on synth duties and spinning tape manipulations around a sweeping, deceptively sweet waltz.
“Leather and Wood” disquiets, but creeps on for a bit too long. Pundt’s “Ad Astra” is unmemorable, especially coming from someone who has consistently crafted standouts on previous Deerhunter releases (“The Missing”, for example, worked as a fine shelter from Monomania’s ambient garage onslaught). Overall, Fading Frontier feels as thought it would have made more sense if it had come after 2010’s Halcyon Digest. The albums share similar palettes and Monomania would have felt even more bold after this lapse into serenity. Yet Fading Frontier still clears a wide-open space for Deerhunter’s future. Here’s hoping it will be filled with something a little more adventurous.