If Rule #1 in a critical piece is to set up a defining premise/concept/angle within the first paragraph, then Rule #2 is to not directly contradict said premise/concept/angle at any point throughout said piece. Well, we really have to hand it to Sasha Geffen of Pitchfork for the innovative smashing of boundaries, rules, and oaths in this stunning review of the new Deerhunter joint, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?. To wit:
“By 2015, Bradford Cox had grown weary of the nostalgia that suffused Deerhunter’s early records. “When I was young, foggy nostalgia was such a part of my shtick. That pink haze of nostalgia and boyhood,” he said in an interview before the release of the band’s seventh LP, Fading Frontier. “Now I just wanna be around adults… I’m not as interested in the pink fog of nostalgia.” On the band’s eighth album, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?, that feeling has perceptibly intensified.”
Six Sentences Later:
“Opener “Death in Midsummer” attends to the memories of departed friends…”
Now, this is the type of mind bending, post idealist, proudly contradictory writing that we can truly get behind, kind of a Surrealist Manifesto for the vanilla latte set. This Deerhunter record is not nostalgic. This Deerhunter record is nostalgic. This is not a Deerhunter record. Our heads are spinning like mounted paper plates in a strong breeze. There are no laws here, no binding chains. All is free and open. And for that, this writer’s name should be etched into water forevermore.
Speaking of nostalgia, it seems that Geffen harbors a visceral, borderline reactionary relationship to the term. There’s just no way we can define it as well as Geffen frames it in Paragraph Two, so throw those Chuck Taylors under the bed and heed these words, kids:
“Nostalgia, after all, fuels some of the United States’ most dangerous reactionary thinking, calling back to a perfectly homogeneous and heterosexual national image that never really existed.”
Still confused about nostalgia, are we? Well, Geffen offers up some more compelling nostalgia invective to chew on:
“These songs contend with the emotional and physical ramifications of life in a country that’s reiterating itself to death, one franchise reboot or startup reinvention at a time.”
Oh so you thought that flannel-and-Ramones-tee and-paperback-books/vinyl-records vibe was way lit, did you? Well think again you head-in-the-sand reactionary escapist goon standing in the way of any and all progress! It’s only latest iPhone toting, gig economy gigging, Bitcoin flinging Insta influencers allowed up in these progressive ranks, thank you very much. We look forward to Pitchfork deleting all their coverage of all those gross 60s/70s/80s/90s mining bands standing firmly in the way of our shiny, inclusive juicery utopia. And it took a bold but entirely necessary stance from the brave Sasha Geffen to really get this glorious purge underway.
Or is Geffen just getting all Breton meta on us again here? The piece is so gleefully off-kilter it’s tough to be sure what’s going on at any given moment. This review is like a hall of mirrors, and an exceptionally fun one at that. Just watch you don’t run headfirst into the Nostalgia Chamber Of Horrors. You’ll never find your way back out.
So what about the rest of the review? Well, we’re kind of exhausted after unwittingly stepping on all those hallucinatory/revelatory landmines strewn throughout the first three paragraphs, but we can point out some further elements of brilliance if you must.
The first is just how deftly this review sticks to 4AD’s meticulously constructed pre-release propaganda blitz which very carefully and not so subtly laid out all of the major talking points that all of the critics across the land are REQUIRED to cover in their reviews if they ever wish to receive a merch package or advance copy ever again, while at the same time poking holes in those very concepts, often within the space of just one line.
The most major of these talking points is that this record was recorded in the middle-of-nowhere Texas moonscape of Marfa, so at least 20 points on the term “expansive” or “wide open” ABSOLUTELY MUST be bandied about over the course of each review. Anything less would be insane. So let’s see how Geffen does, shall we?
“A piano rings out as if into wide open space” 10 points
“Cox sings like he’s trying to be heard from the other side of a gymnasium” 5 points
“The song takes place in both an arena and a coffin” 3 points
“Gently sprawling” 5 points
4AD’s EXPANSIVE quota is met with 3 points to spare. Looks like someone just scored a T Shirt and an advance copy of The National drummer’s debut side project! But Geffen never loses sight of those disruptive, surrealist roots even when trapped within industry talking points, consistently countering all that expansive wide open clear skied massiveness with claustrophobic reference points like that one above about the coffin or waxing about “chimes of harpsichord and drums that sound recorded inside a refrigerator; both hit with blunt force, pulling the song inward.” So is it wide open and soaring aural freedom or is it locked inside a fridge abandoned on the desert floor? It’s both. It’s neither. It’s one and it’s the other, but not both. It’s neither one but both of them. It’s Geffen’s world and we’re just passing through.
Another 4AD requirement is to tout that this is the mature and pop-oriented Deerhunter of Fading Frontier fame before your eyes here, not the blood-vomiting contortionists of that Mono-whatever record. But don’t you dare call it boring. Geffen’s dancing shoes fit just fine in this regard, where her score is pretty much off the charts:
“A spiritual sequel to Fading Frontier, Disappeared seizes on its predecessor’s cheery melodicism.” 10 points
“Deerhunter are in their pop era now…” 10 points
“One of the album’s most bubblegum offerings, “Element,” pairs piano with a swirl of strings, amplifying the melodrama of the syrupy hook.” 10 points
“Cox maintains a forced grin for most of the album.” 8 points
38 points. That’s better than Stereogum’s Premature Evaluation, and that thing was 38,000 words. But Geffen just can’t help but flirt with banishment from 4AD’s Annual Dead Can Dance Holiday Party with points like “Repetition induces decay” which, although later justified, comes pretty close to calling Deerhunter that most damning of “S” words: Stagnant. And this comes after ding ding dinging in all those points for multiple refined/mature pop sensibilities references. If surrealism were a mountain, it would be called Geffen River.
Geffen seems to preserve the way-meta shit for one of the advance press’ more tricky talking points, the one where each critic for each major music site is required to take Bradford Cox’s enigmatic, fragmented lyrics and somehow paint them as up-to-the-minute topical takes on current headlines.
““They were in hills/They were in factories/They are in graves now,” Cox sings, identifying emblematic blue-collar jobs as passageways to death instead of freedom.” 10 points
“(Cox’s lyrics are) a playful reframing of cultural detritus, like advertising, intended to puncture capitalism’s sheen. 10 points
So, people who gig as graphic designers for two-man tech startups live forever? And Cox is attempting to single-handedly take out capitalism by repeating ad phrases and not just doing it because it, like, sounds kind of cool in the song or whatevs? Chances are Geffen is just tripping us out again here, taking the required talking points and spinning them out until down is sideways and up is never again.
Now we’ll just let the last paragraph, which is incredible, sit right here:
“The final track here, “Nocturne,” applies a similar effect to the vocals. The gaps in Cox’s voice jar the ear, while a music box riff plays uninterrupted behind him. Nothing happens to the machines, even as the walls close in and the environment seems to teeter on the verge of collapse. It’s only the body that suffers, stutters, and begins to vanish.”
After all that lecturing on nostalgia. After we’ve been specifically told to get in line with THE MACHINE if we want a clear shot at progressiveness. Now we get this whole OK Computer anti-robots/pro-human body trip. Does this all seem a bit, um, nostalgic to you? Geffen never even meant it, right? It was all a setup to pull the trap door out from under us, once again, right when we thought we’d reached the end.
We need a drink.
Equal parts scorched Earth scolding, playfully contradictory, rule defying, and just plain “gently sprawling”, this is the Chinese finger trap of music reviews.
And we salute it.