Do we miss the days when Deerhunter specialized in music from a pedal board instead of a studio? Remember how you could show someone an interview with the band and have them hooked right away? How about those shows in the summer of 2011, with our feet in the sand, watching Bradford Cox and Lockett Pundt sweat like crazy on the band’s extensive festival tour? These were Deerhunter’s halcyon days where the reviews were the highest and the band were unstoppable.
But are those memories as good as we remember them? Did the band soak in every bit of praise and success that its fans did? Does Cox even like 2010’s Halcyon Digest? He wasn’t even present when ‘Desire Lines’, his favorite cut from the album, was recorded. Already our memory is altered by the finer details. So how does a band as important as Deerhunter continue to operate in a time where nostalgia, often for their own music, trumps creativity? In response, Deerhunter want to destroy the past. An excerpt from the press release for Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? tells us just this:
Is ‘No One’s Sleeping’ an outtake of an aborted Kinks recording session in 1977 Berlin with Eno producing? No. That is nostalgia. If there is one thing Deerhunter are making clear it is that they have exhausted themselves with that toxic concept.
Interestingly, ‘No One’s Sleeping’ is the most distinctly Kinks-sounding song this side of Mac Demarco's Salad Days. It’s a cruel trick. If you enjoyed the song because it reminded you of We Are The Village Green Preservation Society, does it make your experience less authentic? Are you so bathed in rock and roll nostalgia that you can’t absorb new sounds without ties to the classics?
Rather than address the relevance of Deerhunter’s assertion that “nostalgia is toxic,” let’s look at the songs that were birthed by this notion. 'Futurism' is perhaps the blandest song they’ve ever recorded; a two-measure melody, played by White Fence’s Tim Presley, overstays its welcome during Cox’s vocal performance. Backed by boring acoustic guitar and drums, the verses sound distinctly like the studio that’s been exchanged for the punky recordings of the bands first few records. That DIY spirit crosses over into much of Deerhunter’s more recent work, but WHEAD? sounds a lot like the band are more interested in fancy studios than memorable hooks.
Already we’ve fallen into the trap that Cox warned against. But how would 'Futurism' sound to a person that has never heard Deerhunter? The band’s creative highs have always been in the details - the intricacies of the delay pedals and guitar interplay, the soft click sound in every hi-hat hit, the underlying themes of death and sex that seemed to inform each lyric. WHEAD? is much more clear-eyed and compact than the more impressionistic side of Deerhunter, but 'Futurism' has little to offer in the lyrical department. To an outsider, the band sound like a decent pop act and not much more.
Oftentimes this is a treat. ‘Death in Midsummer’ is incredible; Cate LeBon guests on harpsichord, and each piece of the arrangement leads to a satisfying guitar solo and a well-earned outro: “They worked in fields/ they worked in factories/ they are in graves now,” yelps Cox over a climax of desert blues. If this is a record about dodging the pitfalls of nostalgia, this song does a great job of introducing new topics to Cox’s typically introspective musings.
Much of the rest of the album doesn’t touch on a distaste for nostalgia or the way modern culture commodifies it. Why indeed hasn’t everything artistic and compelling already disappeared? The answer isn’t made clear. On what Cox calls a “postcard from the slipstream,” ‘Détournement’ kicks off the album’s second half with more of a poem than a song. A distorted voice waves hello to different nations over a 5/4 time signature in Deerhunter’s most experimental song of the decade. It’s a beautiful sidenote. If the goal was to make something that doesn’t rely on nostalgia, the band succeeded. If the goal was to expand on Cox’s concerns about the disappearance of the American attention span, well, ‘Détournement’ is a little incomplete.
Finding solutions to our cultural problems isn’t easy, but it would be nice if the questions were expounded upon more clearly. It’s frustrating for an album with such confident production to leave its message behind. On early releases, the themes were bizarre and the music followed suit. 2015’s Fading Frontier was the opposite, providing a compelling image of a wiser band with production to match. WHEAD? is not balanced like those records. Even during the rapturous chorus of 'Element' the message behind the lyrics remains a head-scratcher: “Comes a time/ reborn until you die/ Lay these plans out on paper.”
Still, the way the record sounds is a plus. The performances of drummer Moses Archuleta on songs like 'Nocturne' are the best they’ve ever been. The guitars are buried behind treated keyboards, but aren’t missed. Recorded in the artistic utopia of Marfa, Texas, the best moments on WHEAD? transport you to the room where Deerhunter, LeBon, longtime producer Ben Allen, and other collaborators sat together in the expanse of the desert and pieced together what the album would be.
This scenery sounds much more fun than, say, the difficult accounts of what it took to record Halcyon Digest. Much like Fading Frontier, this is a band that’s done a lot of growing up, and the use of studio-as-instrument is proof. Sadly, this is the best part of the experience behind WHEAD?. More memorable would be a complete artistic statement that’s further informed by each track. Instead, each song revels in a singular level of creativity and scattershot collaboration, driving us further away from a central theme.
It would be nice if Deerhunter had a clearer plan of attack on nostalgia culture, but instead WHEAD? boils down to merely a really nice sounding pop rock record. By the time you arrive at the album’s main ideals, the production has turned flat. Would the fuzzy guitar production of records past increase this record’s replay value? If Cox still sounded depressed and repressed would we identify more with his lyric? Is it fair to always compare modern culture to fond memories of the past? How can artists operate in a society that prefers to spend money on remakes and tributes? Why hasn’t everything already disappeared? I wish Deerhunter could help us answer these questions.