Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?
Decay and deterioration are nothing new to Deerhunter. Ten years ago, when most of their contemporaries were focused on pan-global rhythms or rustic chamber folk, the mercurial Atlanta quartet were subjecting their dreamy melodies to nearly every stripe of guitar-driven turbulence from the past three decades; shimmering ambience, damaged psych and the unrepentant squall of shoegaze were all applied liberally, and interchangeably, in a kaleidoscopic swirl. Lead vocalist and bona fide firebrand, Bradford Cox wrote haunted odes to degeneration in the form of terrifying sensory loss, cultural vampires and murderous pyromaniac children long before our current national nightmare, while others were still heralding the newly-minted era of Hope and Change.
That may describe the air of puzzlement, perhaps even boredom, in the title of their eighth album, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? As a consummate outsider, Cox has long been privy to the rotten underpinnings of respectable society, so it makes sense that he’s hardly shocked by our present predicament, even as Disappeared finds him addressing the cracks in our cultural facade more literally than ever before. The tortured nostalgia of the band’s earlier work has been replaced by no-frills accounting of a country on the precipice of total collapse, delivered in the detached manner of someone conveying a long-predicted outcome. “No one’s sleeping / Great unrest / In the country / there’s much duress,” Cox sings on “No One’s Sleeping,” in the clinical manner of alien visitor describing the prevailing mood on Earth back to his home planet. On opening track “Death in Midsummer,” he bluntly pokes holes in the same American mythos used to sell working class people on policies that actively harm them: “They were in hills / They were in factories / They are in graves now.”
On paper that may look like a more socially conscious spin on Deerhunter’s patented morbidity, but somewhat surprisingly, those sentiments are couched in some of the brightest production of the band’s career. In a first-time collaboration, Disappeared was produced by left-field pop auteur Cate Le Bon, and mixed by longtime affiliate Ben H. Allen, whose signature contributions to Halcyon Digest and Fading Frontier lent those records a bizarrely aqueous, yet bottom-heavy atmosphere. This time around, the low-end has been somewhat muzzled, while harpsichords,mandolins and pianos are deployed alongside a battery of synthesizers and ringing guitars plugged straight into the soundboard and deprived of amplifier warmth. The result is a sonic palette that is undoubtedly cleaner, but no less surreal than previous efforts. The heightened clarity makes room for stranger sounds lurking on the margins of what are dependably dense, detail-rich arrangements: the faint wind-like howling that snakes its way through “No One’s Sleeping,” or the brittle scrapes and trebly hum that waft through the gently hip-swiveling “Element.”
Never one for false modesty, Cox has claimed that Disappeared, on a production level, sounds better than both Microcastle and Halcyon Digest, widely thought to be the two undisputed classics in the band’s catalogue. In one sense, he’s not wrong--the record sounds fantastic, and each listen seems to offer up bewitching little details lurking in hidden corners. That said, in its improbably restrained take on what their own label refers to as “the disappearance of culture, of humanity, of nature, of logic and emotion,” the record can initially scan as a tad dispassionate--an impression likely aided by the fact that each Deerhunter release up to this point has marked some bold stylistic pivot. But on multiple listens, that level-headedness actually contributes to a more complex and nuanced statement.
Another possible interpretation of the album’s title is that nothing has disappeared because, contrary to all evidence, we’re not actually living in end times. Cox recently told Stereogum, “But then again, our parents and their parents-especially coming back from World War II and the threat of nuclear annihilation--they must have thought, ‘I can’t have children. The future is so bleak.’“ It’s a refreshingly balanced perspective, especially during a moment in history where anything from light panic to crazed hysteria seems like a sensible response to any given day. If you listen closely, there are even moments where Cox casts off some of his well-practiced fatalism and makes a case for hope, if not outright optimism. “Old man / Oil your engine / You’re rusting out” he sings on “What Happens to People?” Cox may believe it’s man’s nature to destroy himself, but that doesn’t mean he thinks we should go down without a fight.