Deerhunter: Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared

Bradford Cox has been compiling “Directed by John Huston” title cards on a Deerhunter weblog. He’s been thinking about the great American myth and its plains—vast landscapes, mysterious in their longing. Like Marfa, Texas, where Deerhunter recorded their new album, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? The place James Dean made Giant, his final film.

Cox has also been thinking about climate change. At the onset of Deerhunter’s previous long-player, Fading Frontier, he left us a concept map, a free form guide of the band’s trip into a psychologic transformation. A spiritual and gothic elsewhere. Where that was a journey inwards, presently he turns his attention outward, expressing existential concerns over the external—ecological crisis and human extinction. We’re still here, but Cox is beginning to seriously doubt for how much longer.

Like Huston, Bradford Cox likes to solve his riddles as he goes, refuting a finite plan in the approach to finding a truth, a narrative, the thematic nature relentless and ever-shifting. Sharing a kinship for working in an economic and cerebral character toward their respective crafts, Cox admits in a recent interview: “When I think about a record, I view myself as a director of a film—I want to get it done under budget and on time.” Existing on opposite sides of a certain kind of cultural American timeline—cutting away the moss with renegade precision. 

Deerhunter has made a self-proclaimed “science fiction album about the present,” but immediately asks, “Is it needed right now? Is it relevant?” Whatever the answers—and god knows who holds them—Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared is an excellent record, finding Deerhunter at the mesa of their dream pop playground, shouting from the heights with some of its boldest, richest, and most experimental compositional structures to date.

The heavily synth-laden record finds the band stretching out to lengths that recall Halcyon Digest’s more euphoric moments, or the Lockett Pundt-penned “Ad Astra,” from Fading Frontier. In this science fiction element, the band has found a serene sonic spaciousness, a warm and accepting contrast against the album’s thematic concerns. The presence of the mighty Cate Le Bon, in assembly on production, instruments, and vocals, help Deerhunter get in touch with some of their more outsider pop sensibilities, writing futurist folk songs and cosmic pastorals.

Album opener “Death in Midsummer” begins with the sylvan expanse of a Baroque harpsichord, Cox pronouncing a spiritual resignation amongst the worker’s lament. “They were in hills, they were in factories, they are in graves now,” he sings, going on to ask, “They were in debt to themselves –  and what? Is it paid off now?” With fatalistic defiance, he delivers these lines with something like a growl. The guitars and keys zapping and glitching in their transformation. Walking amid the fallout, reversed in the future to a primordial state. “Some worked the hills. Some worked in factories. Worked their lives away. And in time you will see your own life fade away. There was no time to go back.” Cox paints a portrait of a barren, post-industrial wasteland, a dull dystopia that is viewed at a patient remove, from a place of heightened acceptance.

On “No One’s Sleeping”—one of the great additions to the Deerhunter catalog—the band turns a tragic death into a celebratory transcendence, a journey into “the great beyond.” Clothed, loose and whirling, pronounced in its limitlessness, the song expands the band’s sonic realm into a kind of magical realism. Cox sings of a “golden void,” inviting us through to the other side: “The village green is nocturnal finally. Follow me to golden pond.” The album’s qualities come on with subtlety, but stick around and pay attention, and you’ll discover magnificent things are happening. 

The instrumental “Greenpoint Gothic” evokes Wayne Horvitz’s This New Generation and navigates Tubeway Army tones against a vast physiological and sociological complex. On “Plains,” Cox oozes a slinky, southern gothic funk. He’s in Marfa, helping James Dean pass on. “Something glistened in the strange blood-diffused light. My friend was missing. And I was ghost. I was flame. I was bright.”

And the hits do keep coming. “Détournement” is a spoken word space-scape,” a serene instructional audio guide into the afterlife. The luminous chant of “Taureg,” with its aquatic production and gleaming gamelan percussion, its lush rainy hums of saxophone noir, Le Bon and Cox in artistic harmony. Cox calls album closer “Nocturne” a “live stream from the afterlife.” Could be. A fractured epilogue, it feels haunted in its own family tree—evolving from golden-oldie Deerhunter reverb to a more openly expressive sonic palette. A larger world to get lost in. Cox continues to confound, continues to myth make, wryly and self-effacingly accepting his own larger than life status as a storyteller and documenter of our atmosphere and time.

Cox documents and ingests and translates stories of a world coming to terms with itself and what may come after. After everything has been taken. Sucked dry by larger than life forces, forces not unlike John Huston’s own Noah Cross in Chinatown. “Water, power, the future,” he presumes to own, consuming it all until there’s nothing left. 

“Lake of flowers, burning flowers,” Cox laments on “Futurism.” When he reaches “Nocturne,” he dryly observes the absence of boundaries. Only imagined space. Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? is relevant because it exists, examining that absence before it is absolute. There is comfort in a sense of acceptance, and even more so when willed into bliss. Here, Cox wrestles the tangible with the intangible—elemental crisis against a vaster cosmic consciousness. Cox leaves us floating, absently searching for clues amongst back country roads, and then vanishing into a deeper beyond. words/c depasquale

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