You could be the kind of person who complains about Bradford Cox making a comfortable-sounding record, but ask why you’d want to be first. Yes, Fading Frontier is a far cry from the garage rock restructuring he brought to Deerhunter with Monomania. Instead, it’s back to the dreamy textures of Microcastle and Halcyon Digest, but this time around, the dreams are even more pleasant than before. That’s no crime at all.
This is maybe the first Deerhunter record you could show your parents where you could almost guarantee they’d like a decent amount of it. Cox’s songs here aren’t really griping with or trying to tear down “conventional” approaches to indie rock or even rock in general. Fading Frontier is less Pavement and more Peter Gabriel, a record drawn to creating the kind of watery sounds and atmosphere you can float atop without ever feeling like you’re at risk of drowning.
This is something anyone who heard the first two singles could’ve predicted. “Snakeskin” should’ve shocked anyone out of hoping for a Monomania follow-up proper. Everything in the mix is free from distortion, and all the emphasis is placed on creating ominous yet danceable grooves. “Breaker” is even more simple than its forebear, and its main selling point is the fact that it’s a beautifully executed duet between Cox and guitarist Lockett Pundt. There’s a nearly Teenage Fanclub kind of power-pop pureness to it that is difficult to remember Cox ever displaying in such a full way before.
If either of those aren’t quite your cup of tea, the other songs here won’t do much for you either. Cox isn’t really stretching himself here. Every song is more focused on possessing a good melody with lush instrumentation than bearing any marks of experimentation. “All the Same” starts off the record with a reverby guitar riff matched with a lullaby-friendly organ and bass plus drums doing their beautiful bare minimum to keep the song going along. This sort of execution is all over the album, and even the longest song, “Leather and Wood,” doesn’t use much of its extended time trying to transcend the sort of indie folk-rock template it plays into.
There are a couple songs shy of hitting the bullseye. “Take Care” and the aforementioned “Leather and Wood” don’t possess some of the more grabbing elements of the singles and tend to meander more than some of the other low-key tracks here. “Living My Life” is emotionally evocative but in such a way that any band in 2015 seems to be able to be emotionally evocative. It could’ve showed up on a War on Drugs or Delta Spirit album and it wouldn’t be that surprising. These songs don’t quite bear the Bradford Cox stamp the other songs do and, ultimately, it’s that stamp which makes these otherwise simple songs stand apart as something a notch above the rest of the pack.
“Ad Astra” brings things back together close to the end. It’s the sort of synth-centered indie pop song aware of just how many things to borrow from others who’ve made music like this before. It’s a song Brian Eno and Stephin Merritt both seem to haunt, but it couldn’t ever have been a song they’d written. It’s got too much of Bradford Cox in its friendly-ghost textures. At the absolute conclusion of the record, “Carrion” provides one more reminder this is the most accessible Deerhunter album to come out yet. It’s an understated closer but a good one nonetheless.
It seems like this time around, Cox was about as disinterested as a person could be in pleasing the music press who’ve venerated his past triumphs. Instead of trying to make an experimental oddity for music nerds, he made an indie pop album for music fans. He went for our hearts rather than our heads, and, for a band as cerebral as Deerhunter can be, that’s its own kind of artistic evolution.