The slow-burn success of The National must be dark music indeed to the ears of Bradford Cox. It’s proof that, with the age of the alt-rock hit single behind us, art-rock bands can still build a crossover cult army over numerous albums of esoteric character and no little challenge. The frontman of Atlanta’s Deerhunter – a band as a kin to The National as they are to a broad range of indie cults such asDIIV, Kurt Vile or Dirty Projectors – has been flirting with accessibility since 2010’s ‘Halcyon Digest’ injected some pop into their ambient-garage blueprint. So, having exorcised the abrasive itch of 2013’s ‘Monomania’ and the lingering after-effects of his 2014 road accident on ‘Fading Frontier’, is Cox’s eighth album ‘Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?’ set to be his answer to The National’s breakthrough ‘High Violet’?
Early signs – a press release declaring the record “a science fiction album about the present” and accompanying notes from Bradford written in experimental verse – suggest he’ll be sticking firmly to the leftfield, thanks. But the tinkling harpsichord hook of ‘Death In Midsummer’, underpinning a charming indie pop slouch that gradually accelerates from Shins placidity to Neutral Milk Hotel crankiness, opens the record with welcoming arms, and for about 17 minutes, ‘…Disappeared?’ makes like that sunny alt-pop breakthrough album.
Even as Cox muses on death, dolour and disease (“They were in hills, they were in factories, they are in graves now” / “There is peace, the great beyond, cancer was laid out in lines”), tracks such as ‘No One’s Sleeping’ and ‘Element’ burst into unexpected bouts of euphoric, pastoral melody. ‘What Happens To People’ and the instrumental ‘Greenpoint Gothic’ throw back to the ambient synth textures of earlier albums, but otherwise the sounds of harpsichord wires twisting and drum kits dissolving are spun into arch pop seemingly in homage to The Beatles or glam-era Bowie.
Then a sluggish robotic voice starts narrating an introspective tour diary full of “eternal jetlag” where “time starts to run backwards” on ‘Detournement’ and the record takes a characteristic left turn. Suddenly ‘Futurism’ comes on like Brendan Benson fronting an extremely drunk St Etienne, the space harmonies of ‘Tarnung’ drifts by atop a soothing eastern xylophone and ‘Plains’ is a bright, melodic triumph of squelching synths and Afrobeat pops and crackles that sounds like Paul Simon on a heavy dose of ayahuasca in 1986. Come the closing ‘Nocturne’, Bradford is wailing into a malfunctioning microphone like the late, great Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse phoning a wasted lullaby home with one unreliable bar of phone coverage, and ‘…Disappeared?’ becomes less Cox’s ‘High Violet’, more his ‘Low’. This is how you turn pop into art.