by Sam Sodomsky via Pitchfork
The most extreme thing about Deafheaven’s remarkable fourth album is how subdued it sounds. It suggests devastation without placing you at the center of it.
Deafheaven’s music is not made for the everyday. No two of their four records sound quite alike, but their mood is immediately identifiable. It’s a place where serious subjects—love and loss, emotional apocalypse, existence—are amplified like sunlight through a magnifying glass. They make a kaleidoscope out of heavy music’s most introspective corners: The tortured shrieks and blast beats of black metal ripple through shoegaze’s immersive guitar tones, all building with the skyward patience of starry-eyed post-rock. You don’t put these records on casually.
Given their penchant for grand gestures, the most extreme thing about Ordinary Corrupt Human Loveis how subdued it sounds. It’s the first release from the Los Angeles-based quintet that feels more like a collection of songs than one unbroken piece, and it exposes shades of their work that have primarily been kept to the peripheries. The slow, dramatic opener “You Without End” blooms from muted piano and slide guitar, instruments that lend a mournful touch to their typically explosive melodies. Other songs incorporate clean singing in contrast to vocalist George Clarke’s characteristic howl. “Night People,” with lead vocals from goth-folk singer-songwriter Chelsea Wolfe and multi-instrumentalist Ben Chisholm, is their most spectral and fragile recording to date. This music suggests devastation without placing you at the center of it.
Over the past few years, Deafheaven have discussed hitting various personal lows in the wake of 2015’s restless and intense New Bermuda, citing depression, creative fatigue, and substance abuse. Bassist Stephen Clark quit the band once the tour was over. Guitarist Kerry McCoy got sober. Taking a more metaphorical refuge, Clarke became interested in candid photography, collaborating with artist Nick Steinhardt to create stark portraits like Sean Stout’s photograph that graces Human Love’s cover. “I told him I didn’t want anything extraordinary,” he explained about the collaborative visual project. “Just people in their everyday routine.”
This shift in perspective, from the vast to the ordinary, is the point. On Human Love, Deafheaven tell unglamorous stories, examining intimate scenes that go down when no one is watching. “I’m reluctant to stay sad” goes an early lyric, and the record follows suit, as dark moods roll by like faraway clouds. Clarke’s piercing voice continues to evoke the highest reaches of human pain, yet he’s grown more adept at exposing subtler melancholy. In the surging, dreamlike “Honeycomb,” he writes like a goth beat poet surveying the city: Words like “geese,” “mariachi,” and “Cortázar” have never been sung with such brutality.
The band matches Clarke in all his passing visions. They’ve become as expressive in their slowcore balladry (“Near”) as their more bracing epics (the duel-guitar-laden second half of “Worthless Animal”). Their best songs, like centerpiece “Canary Yellow,” explore all these various modes in ragged, epiphanic cycles. While peers like Sannhet have grown more airtight with each new album, Deafheaven still love letting their seams show: Drop the needle at any point on Human Love, and you might hear a completely different band—one aiming for arenas, or mosh pits, or the soundtrack of a climactic makeout scene in a prestige television show. Five years removed from their landmark Sunbather, Deafheaven have never seemed less interested in being fashionable—as a result, they sound newly content.
In its hour-long runtime, Human Love unfolds as an even-handed showing of Deafheaven’s strengths. Like Sunbather and New Bermuda, it’s marked by fleeting moments of sheer beauty. Many of these arrive thanks to McCoy’s guitar playing, a direct and intuitive line of communication that complements Clarke’s illegible emotion. Some of his best riffs are scattered throughout “Glint,” a song that evolves magnificently as Clarke intertwines visions of marital bliss with fantasies of self-destruction. It’s an instant addition to their canon of showstoppers, walking the tightrope of extreme music and radio-friendly ’90s alt-rock without sinking into the cheesy, histrionic center of that Venn diagram. That they sound less interested in risking that fate only makes their successes feel more triumphant.
There have always been two ways to hear Deafheaven’s music. There’s the micro approach, which involves dissecting the band’s influences and navigating their records like a mixtape without a tracklist. (What’s that familiar melody? What emotion are they trying to express? What genre is this?) On Human Love, they recall the atmospheres of a wide variety of bands without explicitly copping their styles: Touchstones like Slowdive, the Smashing Pumpkins, and the Smiths are all suggested at various points within this music. Like watching a magic show backstage, looking for these references can draw admiration as much as disillusionment at how it all comes together.
The other angle to admire Deafheaven is more macro—which particularly benefits this album—as you stand back and surrender to the squall. Human Loveis Deafheaven’s subtlest, prettiest music, and it aims for a different kind of transcendence. For all the influences their music conjures, you’d never mistake these songs for any other band. The record’s title is taken from Graham Greene’s 1951 novel The End of the Affair, words spoken by a narrator who is uncommonly torn between love and hate. In the place of his all-consuming obsessions, he longs for something benign and ignorable to ponder on the way to work—the type of fantasies he imagines occupying the mind of more contented people. It’s a common dream, though, for some of us, it’s unrealistic. Human Love thrives in the moments where the extraordinary and the commonplace collide and become indistinguishable. In search of something quietly universal, Deafheaven can’t help but notice the tiny miracle in each breath.