Fear of an imperfect voice

Thoughts on “Why hasn’t everything already disappeared?” by Deerhunter

Sometimes it’s good to approach an album knowing nothing about the artist. Sometimes it’s better to approach an album having misconceptions about the artist which can be destroyed by listening to the album. I don’t know where I got the idea that Deerhunter were some weird Avant Garde act, I may have even confused them with Deerhoof, but I know it was based on a live review I saw in an old issue of Mojo many years ago and quite frankly I don’t see the point in investigating that one. But let me be perfectly clear on this – whatever I thought Deerhunter were, I wasn’t expecting this.

Ignorance is bliss too. I’ve tried to avoid as much information about the album so I can assess it just on how it sounds and how the words come through. You know, listen without prejudice. There are stories of inspirations for some songs, but I feel they get in the way of the songs. Do I need to know the genesis of “No one’s sleeping”? No, I can pick up the unease from a cursory listen to the song.

And so to the album itself, or rather a second attempt at the album. A first attempt was so pitiful that I binned it so I’m trying again…

You see, I’ve been making a case for this album that yes maybe it’s about darkness and death but you can’t really tell that from the music alone. But that’s a lie really. Of course you can pick that up. Maybe I’m just naive, or I don’t listen closely enough. As soon as I started to analyse the songs the darkness was overwhelming, I couldn’t help spotting the references. This annoyed me, not because it went against my own argument, but because listening to the music alone I didn’t pick up the darkness. Or maybe I’m just a bit shallow and don’t listen properly.

So yes lyrically there’s darkness and death and fear. “Death in midsummer” (death, Rob, death, it’s there right in your face) has Bradford Cox singing “Your friends have died… They are in graves now” and in the quiet coda he looks on sadly at the world “Look around and you’ll see what’s fading”. And that’s just the opening song. There’s more, a lot more. “Element” seems to be describing an apocalypse, “Threads” in a pop song (not an original thought, but nuclear dread is so 20th century). “Curtain call for all those lives spent surviving for that final day”. “No-one’s sleeping” due to a great unrest, and even the village greens aren’t safe any more. (I’m trying to avoid the subject matter on that one because it does touch nerves). “Futurism” seems to hinge on Cox almost stopping the song to deliver the final word on the line “Call it what you want dear, I call it ‘Fear'”. I don’t know… And what does happen to people? That’s a question asked on here, why do they change? From idealism to … What exactly?

But behind the darkness the music is rich, colourful and far from melancholy. “No-one’s sleeping” ends with a glorious instrumental coda, “Element” has Chamberlain strings and autoharps buzzing, “Futurism” and “Plains” are deceptively upbeat musically. This isn’t minor chord sadness, if it is apocalypse that Cox is facing, then he’s facing it with a grin on his face.

There’s a few detours along the way. “Greenpoint Gothic” is pure cusp of the 80s Gary Numan, those Vox Humana PolyMoog sounds are complimented nicely by gamelan piano and marimbas. “Tarnung” again points to the early 80s, a marimba pattern repeats with high and lonesome monosynths and pattering drum machines, an oriental tone. There’s hints of Japan, the quieter side of “Deceit” era This Heat and the clanking background noise on early Eyeless In Gaza songs. Spooked to say the least.

And then there’s “Detournement” which unsettles the flow of the album. Not musically, the slow build of layers of guitars, pianos and synths makes sense. But the vocal … It’s a spoken word piece, placed through some peculiar electronics to harmonise and pitchshift, to smear and smudge the words. And it still freaks me out. I don’t know what the words are trying to say, it seems like a travelogue around the world. But the effect on the voice unsettles me, I find it uncomfortable to listen to. I’ve always been this way, from “Fitter happier” backwards to “Radioland”, it sends shivers down my spine.

The closing song “Nocturne” has a similar effect. A slow crawl with electric pianos and a stumbling drumbeat, Cox’s vocal is cut up and smeared, dropping out here and there, making it impossible to understand (the lyric sheet is the same, missing letters and words). Again it’s uncomfortable, sense is abandoned, though Cox’s passion to express himself is evident. But the cut out vocal has an unfortunate effect of invoking the memory of Norman Collier, which probably isn’t the idea. So the voice is imperfect again but at least I can get past it now. Thankfully once the vocal is abandoned after two minutes, the tempo is doubled and everything rights itself – a piano thumps out a regular chord sequence, drums are clattered, and waves of synths add melody upon melody. Another 1981 reference – it sounds like an outtake from “Anywhere”, New Musik’s marvellous second album. And this continues for about four minutes, with a few changes along the way. It’s like sunlight after the rain, a joyous return to normality, or a final ascension to heaven. Either way, it’s a great way to close the album.

Does “Why hasn’t everything already disappeared?” reflect life? Depends how life is. Does anyone have this much to worry about? Probably doesn’t reflect Bill Gates’ or Theresa May’s lives. They may have other worries than those expressed here. But it may reflect life for you, if you think deeper than me. Maybe that’s why I’m a goldfish. Walk around and you’ll see what’s faded.

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