Deerhunter’s excellent new album, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?, is the closest the long-running Atlanta band has ever come to an outright pop LP. Highlights like “What Happens To People?” and “Futurism” revel in their smooth edges and sophisticated arrangements, and the album as a whole has an appealing sleekness, at least on its surface.
Those pop instincts reach their apex with “Plains,” which the band has hidden away as the next-to-last track on Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? The song is a double tribute to two fallen idols. On one level, it’s dedicated to James Dean, who filmed his final screen role in Marfa, Texas, in 1955, just days before his death in a California car crash. Sixty-three years later, Deerhunter began work on Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? in the same West Texas town. “Oh, James,” Bradford Cox sings, as if he’s consoling a friend. He feels out of place here — “These plains/Are barren and hateful terrain” — and he finds a kind of comfort in imagining that Dean did, too.
There’s a second, subtler tribute in “Plains,” a coded love note written into its sprightly syncopation and synthesized burble. Cox went through a major Whitney Houston phase during the recording of Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?, listening nonstop to her 1985 classic “How Will I Know” and decorating the Atlanta studio where Deerhunter finished the album with photos of the late star. “I consider her to be a great artist of the 20th century, as much as de Kooning or Peggy Lee,” Cox told me late last year. “Her voice was a natural force. You don’t have to know her story to hear her song on the radio at the gas station and feel good.” On Twitter last week, co-producer Ben Etter noted that the instrumental arrangement for “Plains” was created with Houston in mind. Listen again and you’ll hear it, particularly in the verses.
“Plains” is a catchy two-minute pop song that’s also a many-layered meditation on death, art and performance. Cox is in Marfa, thinking about James, then he’s home in Atlanta, thinking about Whitney. We’re wherever we are, listening to Deerhunter and thinking about all three. His sense of disconnection brings him closer to two icons he never met, and elevates us to another place entirely. Isn’t that what the best pop music is all about?