In the mid-’00s and amid the constant and misinformed spate of middle-aged music-geek laments about the anemic quality of modern music, the release of Deerhunter’s Cryptograms (Kranky, 2006) landed like a sonic bomb. It didn’t captivate mainstream audience sensibilities by any means, but it forcefully captured the hearts and minds of those of us who appreciate brashly visionary organic tunes that have that lurking yin-yang vibe (think The Cure, early Bright Eyes, the xx, Ariel Pink).
The oceanic interludes on Cryptograms are like an ethereal epiphany among the noir noise-scapes such as the titular song and others like “Lake Somerset”, whose nuanced nihilism, with its insistent zombie-beat and darkly drawling vocals, provide a subtly frightening experience.
The album defies the notion nurtured among amateur music critics that primeval sounds cannot cohesively flow alongside ambient atmospheres, not to mention plucky Eno-esque psychedelia. Cryptograms is indeed a cryptic telegram, a coded message from a seeming far-flung future, and yet grounded in the here and now.
Since Cryptograms (Deerhunter’s sophomore effort, a tuneful leap from their frazzled and fractured debut, Turn It Up Faggot (Stickfigure, 2005), Deerhunter has evolved and devolved and evolved again in fascinating fashion.
By devolve I don’t mean Deerhunter’s music ever became bad. The probability of Deerhunter being bad is nearly impossible to calculate, because they’ve never been bad and will likely never be bad. So allow me to explain the quirky connotations and iffy semantics of that pronouncement.
Deerhunter started out as an experiment in cosmic cacophony. From the launch of their aforementioned dissonant debut to the recently released languidly beautiful Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? (4AD, 2019) the Deerhunter sound has splintered off in many different directions — and yet, each splinter is a cogent extension of an element of their sound, allowing them to retain their dualistic identity.
For example, Cryptograms fuses tormenting discordance with fluid euphony, but also finds a cozy middle ground with songs like “Strange Lights”, a whirl of scintillating retro-pop. The third album, Microcastle (4AD, 2008), pushes the lush territory further with a twisted shoegaze-meets-doo-wop vibe, while Halcyon Digest (4AD, 2010) is a thoroughly developed iteration of these disparate facets of music. By the time Halcyon Digest comes around, Deerhunter’s music becomes less paranoiacally introverted, acquiring more extroverted depth and dimension.
Monomania (4AD, 2013) is a seeming anomaly in the sense that it is mostly a foray into snarling aggression – and yet, all it really does is further externalize the vitriolic emotions that have always been boiling below the surface and that are specifically explored on Cryptograms. Monomania takes the claustrophobic tension from Cryptograms and turns it inside out into a ragged rage. Bradford Cox may have branded that album “nocturnal garage”, which is an apt description, but the lingering impression from the album is a barely suppressed Versuvian wrath.
Then comes 2015’s Fading Frontier (4AD) — derided by some critics and fans as too polished, too saccharine, at least by Deerhunter standards. But again, this is just a logical evolution of their more mellifluous self. If Deerhunter is an unsolved Rubik’s Cube ( and if you will allow me this contrived analogy) then Fading Frontier is a solved side of soft, warm colors, like yellow. Fading Frontier also is the first album that truly explores a more roots-oriented tableau that first becomes evident on Monomania songs like “Pensacola”.
So here we are at Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?, which takes all of these different elements and creates a compelling canvas of subdued chamber music melodies (“Death in Midsommer”, “No One is Sleeping”, “What Happens to People”, “Element”), futuristic reverberations (“Greenpoint Gothic”), Asian-infused avant garde (“Tarnung”), uptempo musings (“Futurism”), and fleshed-out Americana (“Plains”). Plus, there’s a slightly creepy sci-fi spoken word (“Detournement”) that is reminiscent of the more disturbing scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 film, Eyes Wide Shut.
Granted, lyrically-speaking, the faux-Zen lyrics for “Detournement” provide a bizarre contrast to the dark-masked tone, but these contradictions constitute its offbeat charm. And it’s true, too, some of these songs on the new album sound like mere scaffolding for songs, as opposed to wholly realized constructions, but that’s the beauty of Deerhunter: delivering gorgeously-wrought rough sketches or fully-blossomed flowers of evil. (Baudelaire, after all, is a spiritual antecedent to Deerhunter)
And so we arrive back at Cryptograms, the ideal consummation of the cerebral and visceral, the album that launched a career of stunningly diverse, intuitively imagined LPs. Of course, this is not to discount the various EPs (“Fluorescent Grey” and “Rainwater Cassette Exchange” in particular), or the side projects like Lotus Plaza, Atlas Sound and Moon Diagrams. And nor is it to ignore guitarist Lockett Pundt’s considerable musical contributions to Deerhunter proper.
But when gazing back at the career of the band and how they have progressed, it’s salient to note that the progression harbors a paradoxical regression in the sense that the band has, in a way, come full circle. Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? is really just the fraternal twin of Cryptograms. Or, if you prefer, they are antithetical twins – shattered mirror images, whose fragments slightly echo each other structure-wise (both have calming instrumental interludes) and whose musical tones are analogous in the conceptual sense, wherein innovative sonic moods mingle with quirky-conventional pop tunes as the main impetus driving the albums.
But where they diverge more sharply is in the lyrical tones. Cryptograms has a harrowing, nearly sociopathic take on life and nothingness (“My greatest fear I can’t decode / A cryptogram whose seeds weren’t sewn / My last few months I irised out / My vision blurred / There was no sound / There was no sound”) whereas Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared contains passive metaphysical ruminations about the state of the planet and humanity (“Some worked the hills / Some worked in factories / Worked their lives away / And in time / You will see your own life fade away”).
The albums may seem, at first superficial listen, to have very little to do with each other. But a closer inspection of the entire Deerhunter oeuvre, and more specific focus on Cryptograms and Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? reveals that Deerhunter has finally arrived back at their beginning, where inspired experimentation becomes a transcendent force once again.