A kaleidoscope of sound cocoons impressionistic lyrics in ‘psychotropic folk’ album.
‘The Beautiful Undead’ is the fifth album from the The Deer, a quintet from Austin, Texas. It is a confection of poetic pop music and continues a tradition of merging folk with dreamy orchestral sound. This is a venerable concept, reaching back to The Incredible String Band from the 1960s. But The Deer’s new album also betrays jazz influences as well as hints of surf music. There are some vaguely familiar tunes, which sound derivative but whose provenance is hard to place.
What to make of this kaleidoscope? It has densely layered instrumentation with synths, fiddle, mandolin, electric and acoustic guitars, slide guitar, piano, and mellotron on a rhythmic bed of bass and drums. All of this is woven around Grace Park’s incredible vocals. Building on these foundations, The Deer create a distinctive sound. While not wholly original, it is rich, colourful and entertaining. These are well-schooled musicians. They have a keen ear for a catchy pop hook with a sound closer to the Cocteau Twins than the Night Sweats. They seem more at home in an opera house then a roadhouse.
Self-described as ‘psychotropic folk’, the lyrics seem more influenced by the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Colorado than Woody Guthrie’s dustbowl ballads. Their songs are not linear stories of loss and love but more impressionist wordplay. In this album, The Deer create atmosphere rather than narrative. In ‘Bellweather’, for instance, the singer intones, “Several lifetimes far ago I’d overflow, And formed of parts of matter in time, Collapsed the stars is the force I feel.”
What becomes apparent in the midst of the comforting layers of sound is a coldness. This is music that is more of the head than the heart. This is modern poetry, infused with ambiguity, from an age of uncertainty. Consider this line from ‘Golden Broken Record:’ “Maybe it’s the winds of change, Invite me to follow, Maybe I don’t feel in danger When it is what it is.” And then ‘Bellweather’ : “We were both in disguise of who we wanted to be, A clever bouquet of lies, Didn’t matter to me.” Again, in ‘Up I Presume’: “The sighs coincide with maybes, to Transpire a delicate bloom, Soon what thrives will wilt and someday, What remains is left to exhume.”
It is tempting to define ‘The Beautiful Undead’ as pretension, beautifully presented, but that wouldn’t be accurate. This is a ‘hipster’ album, reflective of a particular moment. This is not an attempt to preserve a musical tradition. The Deer use their formal training to merge folk sounds with multiple other influences to communicate the concerns of a particular time and place. As noted in ‘Golden Broken Record’, “I am guessing there are guesses, Just cause I come from Texas.”
The upshot? This is art; an exploration of the moment. The Deer have produced an album with intriguing sound and challenging lyrics. The combination is inviting.