While you won’t find the dissonant clattering or introverted musings found on previous releases, Deerhunter’s eighth (official) album, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?, holds many surprises for longtime fans of the Atlanta-based outfit. 2015’s Fading Frontier set the stage for the new era of Deerhunter as they infused their experimental leanings with the pop hooks that have always remained buried underneath sheets of ambiance. This new direction hinted towards Deerhunter’s role as elder statesman to the ever-changing indie-rock scene, and Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? solidifies this sentiment with varying, yet mostly positive results.
The album begins with a harpsichord riff (courtesy of the brilliant co-producer and collaborator Cate Le Bon) on the anthemic lead-off single, “Death in Midsummer”, while Bradford introduces the apocalyptic themes that permeate the album. Cox’s lyrics throughout the album point both inwards and outwards, using historical scenery (factory workers, the Russian Revolution of 1917, freighthopping) to analyze modern-day unrest. “No One’s Sleeping” echoes the first track lyrically, and builds into a coda that recalls the long-winded sonic exploration of their early albums but with more orchestral flourishes. The band utilizes many of their strengths on these opening tracks: Moses Archuleta’s crunchy drums, Lockett Pundt and recent addition Javier Morales’ lead guitar/synthesizer interplay, and Josh McKay’s understated bass grooves buoy the new age of Deerhunter.
While they have always been plagued with frequent lineup changes, the group sounds much more in tune with each other than they did on Fading Frontier. The instrumental “Greenpoint Gothic” gives the band room to spread out under a psychedelic blanket of sound, expertly arranged by longtime producer Ben H. Allen. Two of the best tracks on the album follow this: the baroque-tinged earworm “Element” and the breathtaking title track. “Element” is an “elegy to ecology” per the liner notes, and it’s danceability contrasts the dark lyrics to further its eerie mood. “What Happens to People?” rounds out side one, and might possibly be their strongest track in years, replete with melodic interplay and dynamics that signal there is much to look forward to in Deerhunter’s upcoming releases as the 18-year-old band continues to grow.
And then there’s “Detournement”. While Cox’s high-art influenced background can transform a standard rock song into something unforgettably unique, his muses get the best of him as he rambles in a robotic down-tuned manner that does relatively nothing for the track. One has to give them credit for creating something unlike anything else in their catalog, but let’s hope they never do it again. “Futurism” picks up the pace again, casting an image of our future society against a relentlessly driving backdrop. Cox delivers one of his most memorable one-liners here - “Call it what you want, dear… I call it ‘fear’” - distilling the current emotion of the human race to one simple line. The mood drops for Pundt’s sole songwriting contribution, “Tarnung”, is graced with ghostly harmonies and tinkling pianos. This track, unfortunately, fades into the background as it doesn’t seem to structurally fit the essence of the rest of the album.
The tribal drums and 80’s tinged synthesizers of “Plains” offer yet another view at Deerhunter’s new expansive sound as it lifts from a funky verse to a widescreen chorus. With a track time of just over two minutes, the band could have extended this track to give it the space it deserves. The album ends with “Nocturne”, a song that recalls Cox’s side-project Atlas Sound with its off-kilter vocal processing and rattling effects before giving the band a few minutes to stretch out over synthesizers and more effortlessly tasty drums.
Overall, this album gave me hope after the underwhelming Fading Frontier. Their idea of “pop music” is endearingly warped and expertly executed, and for a band coming up on their 20th anniversary, their reluctance to look back is admirable. Of course, I miss the scuzzy, fuzzed out classic Deerhunter, but those albums will always remain in my record collection for me to revisit. And while it might not be my favorite album of theirs, an “okay” Deerhunter record will probably be better than 80% of the indie-rock albums released this year. Long live Cox & Co.