Deerhunter – Fading Frontier

“What’s wrong with me?” repeats Bradford Cox on the closing track of Deerhunter’s seventh album. ‘Carrion’ is typical of Fading Frontier, blending a lush pop lullaby with sentiments that grow darker the closer you inspect them. But it’s not all bleak for the famously temperamental Cox, and ‘Carrion’ also captures the album’s balancing act between gusts of empowerment (“Carry on”) and shrugs of hopelessness (carrion being a term for decaying animal flesh).

Recorded with the band’s usual producer, Ben H. Allen III, Fading Frontier is at its best when piling up those contradictions of mood. ‘All the Same’ opens the album with chiming guitar and reverbed warmth, yet the lyrics offset that blanketing comfort zone with mentions of a friend’s bored father changing his gender only to lose his friends and family. All the same, it advises one to turn personal handicaps into a source of strength. ‘Living My Life’ is another portrait of melancholy made lush, split between the self-affirming mantra “I’m living my life” and the soured American dream evoked via “Amber waves of grain are turning grey.” It starts off like a nocturnal summons and ends on an eerily – perhaps ironically – upbeat note, as if targeting a summer festival crowd.

“Incredibly strong in the first half and then disappointingly diffuse in the second”

Such puzzling divides are all over this record, which itself is incredibly strong in the first half and then disappointingly diffuse in the second. But it often flows quite well as a whole, from the sleepyheaded dream-pop and glowing circuitry of synth melodies in ‘Duplex Planet’ to the blissed-out fog and float of ‘Take Care’. ‘Breaker’ is definitely the sweetest moment here, harkening back to the radio-friendly jangle-pop of The La’s or even Gin Blossoms. Again, though, the musical romance is tempered by Cox’s cynical streak: even the stars he cites are dying, and soon he’s describing a car wreck against that same lovely backdrop.

The second half embarks with ‘Leather and Wood’, on which the album’s circadian rhythms reach their lowest ebb and Cox’s lyrics feel more tossed-off. Also not entirely successful is the funky glam-rock detour of lead single ‘Snakeskin’, which would have fit better amid the wall-of-sound bravado of 2013’s Monomania. Despite its sudden spike in libido, the song fades from mind more quickly than all the more subdued ones around it. The only song written by guitarist Lockett Pundt, ‘Ad Astra’ provides a woozy comedown from that but ultimately gets lost in its own channel-surfing snippets of outside material.

Deerhunter always find a lot to exploit in the intersection of Cox’s gloomy visions and the band’s gravity-defying pop vistas, and for the most part Fading Frontier is a rewarding immersion in diverse layers of melody and meaning. But there’s still a nagging spottiness that keeps it from reaching its full potential.

7/10 Stars