Someone who compiles these things (Metacritic, apparently) averaged all the reviews for all the records released last year, and Deafheaven's Sunbather came in at number one. In fact, the album with the starkly pink cover is the seventh-highest-scoring record in Metacritic's entire database, dating back to 1999. That means it beat Kanye West's Yeezus and Daft Punk's Random Access Memories.
That's a feat in and of itself, given how heavily most albums are marketed compared to this -- what's more weird about a relatively unknown upstart taking such accolades is how the band is labeled post-metal, black metal, and shoegaze all in one.
In reality, Sunbather transcends genre in an era when it means less and less to associate yourself with a particular category, anyway. The best descriptor for Deafheaven might be "texture-heavy," as nothing remains static: moments of intense, hand-wringing beauty amid pop and shoegaze influences are accented by engulfing tones of violence, despair, and a "sober restlessness," on songs that routinely last more than 10 minutes.
Many similar lyrical themes weave in and out on the album -- blissful death, striving for perfection, Hell on Earth -- but lead screamer and lyricist George Clarke repeatedly has emphasized that Sunbather is not a concept album. When we called Clarke, he was eating a club sandwich in a hotel lobby in Richmond, Virginia. We first asked him if he was attracted to the idea of a unified story, and if he'd ever consider writing one.
"No, probably not," Clarke says. "I think that every great record can enjoyably be listened from front to back. There's an age where it makes sense and it's cohesive, and I'm sure we'll continue to do that, structurally. But as a far as a full concept, nah. That's way too prog for my taste."
Either way, the ebb and flow of Sunbather will begin to manifest under your skin the more you listen. "Windows," an almost overlooked interlude near the end of the album, is filled with heavy piano bass and distorted tape textures, but the most unsettling thing about this atmosphere is the voices we hear. A street preacher trumpets the Gospel and warns of a place where "the worm dieth not," while guitarist Kerry McCoy, Deafheaven's other half, scores drugs on the street. The juxtaposition of a possible Hell and the torment of addiction is not lost. We asked how the band recorded the drug deal.
"It was a little nerve-racking, but it wasn't that bad," Clarke says. "We just had his phone, and he was just wearing a shirt that had a front pocket, and we just put it in his front pocket." It's not surprising that Clarke's lyrics are heavily inspired by literary sources, which is why on "Please Remember," you can hear French shoegaze band Alcest's Stéphane Paut reading a passage from Milan Kundera's novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Clarke doesn't sing, saying he's "just your average tone-deaf person." He sees his howling, screeching, and wailing as its own instrument -- deciphering the lyrics isn't really the point. Luckily, if you have trouble making out what's being shrieked, the band has publicly shared their lyrics.
On the titular track, you'll find lines like "Break bones down to yellow and crush gums into blood / The hardest part for the weak was stroking your fingers with rings full of teeth." "Dream House" focuses on alcoholism and envy with strong existential overtones. So does Clarke actually have his own dream house?
"I don't. Not necessarily," he says. "At least I haven't seen it yet. That term is just relating to an ideal. Something you want more than anything."
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