Deerhunter has always been a band concerned with the “then” more than the “now”. Their 2010 landmark album Halcyon Digest had to do with memories and the feelings of hazy nostalgia that come with reminiscing over them. The way that the past is romanticized, even when it is often harsh in retrospect was the core theme of not only Halcyon Digest but of much of Deerhunter’s work. Even earlier works like Microcastle and Weird Era Cont. deal with a similarly blurred nostalgic viewpoint.
With Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? vocalist Bradford Cox has eschewed his hindsight driven writing in favor of something much more contemporary. And what better time to focus on the “now” than one of the most politically divisive periods in recent American history? A time where the post-truth era is in full effect and government employees at the time of writing have just now been promised backpay for 2 payless pay periods during the longest government shutdown ever. Where Donald Trump fumbles about his presidency all the while copious amounts of fallout is created beneath him. America is truly a cacophony during the “now”.
The result is WHEAD? being an apocalyptic album and also Deerhunter’s most political. The album never gets aggressive or overt with its politics, with Cox preferring to opt for more subtle allusions to be unpacked in his lyrics “They were in hills/They were in factories/They are in graves now/They were in debt to themselves/And what? Is it paid off now?” Cox sings on album opener “Death in Midsummer” a song about working yourself to the bone that begins with a luxurious harpsichord intro that builds into a heavily distorted guitar solo. Cox seems distraught over the status of the working class and sees that living paycheck to paycheck is perhaps not even truly living, hence the title. “Death in Midsummer” is also a short story written by Yukio Mishima about a middle-class family going to the beach which leads to the deaths of their children and aunt that was watching them. An understated reference to a short piece about power structures in families hardly seems accidental.
On “No One’s Sleeping”, another song that begins with a lavish and upbeat instrumental that quickly deviates to darker lyrics like “No one’s sleeping/Great unrest/In the country/There’s much duress/Violence has taken hold/Follow me/The golden void”. By the time I reached the fourth track, “Element”, one of the singles released in the build up to the release of WHEAD?, I realized what the modus operandi of this album was- beautiful and lush compositions with contrastingly grim lyrics. On “Element” the album takes an apocalyptic turn with some of the darkest lines on the album. “The wind was stained/Orange clouds fade up for a toxic view/Of endless time, endless time/Let it wash over your body”. Never have I heard such sweet and sticky music created about a nuclear apocalypse.
On the album’s centerpiece, “What Happens to People?” Cox bemoans the futility of existing in our current period over a melodic and high-pitched piano duet. “What happens to people?/Their lives up in arms/What happens to people?/They quit holding on/What happens to people/And what can they do?/They’re only returning/The powers of youth.” WHEAD?‘s biggest strength is in the contrast between the instrumentation and lyrics. It creates a schizophrenic album that serves as a kind of psychic ointment for millennials and the troubles that we face unique to our generation. Hopelessness, unemployment, lack of upward mobility, the destruction of the planet, crippling debt, all of these things have a place within the confines of WHEAD?
There are a few moments on the album that overstay their welcome, such as “Détournement”, an interlude where Cox greets the members of various nations and takes the role of a “Big Brother” type voice. Which makes sense because the title of the song is a French term for the use of art as propaganda, wearing out the cultural importance of the art’s original intention. Which, ironically, is even something we presently with the ways that members of the alt-right have co-opted memes such as Pepe. But by the two minute mark the song has made its point and keeps going for almost another two full minutes.
But WHEAD?’s strengths more than make up for any small gripes with the album. Even some issues could be seen by many as endearing idiosyncrasies. Album closer “Nocturne” was by far my favorite moment of the album. A song about the disintegration of boundaries and of being abducted by border guards during the night. It is prescient in a time where Donald Trump wants to erect a Cold War-esque barrier similar in concept to that of the Berlin Wall erected by the Soviet Union. The album liner states that “Nocturne” is a type of black comedy meant to cope with today’s horrifying news cycle. It is a nearly seven-minute long frolic through frightening realities that builds to a harmonious three-minute instrumental outro with pianos, synthesizers, and guitars under layers of filters and distortion— and is an excellent culmination.
WHEAD? is Deerhunter’s darkest album. It is telling that a band that was so previously obsessed with looking back to the past and its innocence felt the need to write such a politically charged album about the present times. What we were given is something prophetic that is densely packed and rewards repeat listens. This is quite possibly Deerhunter’s best album and easily their most thought provoking release to date. WHEAD? is an album of high-minded lyrics. This is the balm for the anxiety caused by the “now”.
Highlights: “Death in Midsummer”, “Greenpoint Gothic”, “What Happens to People?”, “Nocturne”