On the surface, Deafheaven spawns all sorts of conversation about genre, true black metal, the creeping influence of indie rock on metal, and how popularity affects art. I could care less at this point. Deciding whether you like their recent album based on any of these points is ridiculous when there’s an interesting discussion to be had about why they aren’t very good at what they do.
I was listening to New Bermuda with the intent of doing a review of it this week when it became clear to me why I didn’t like what I was listening to. Unfortunately, this clarity is going to be very difficult to articulate. It has to do with something that you’d probably struggle with constantly if being trained as a classical musician. It has to do with the fine line between being expressive enough to engage a listener and over-expressing to the point of alienating a listener.
This distinction exists in all art forms, and I think it is easier to explain with poetry. Think of some angsty high school kid trying to express his feelings in poetry. It’s probably blatantly obvious and filled with all sorts of cliche metaphors. It is so over-the-top that it makes you cringe to read. But it was probably also heartfelt, sincere, and cathartic for the writer. It’s just that the writer hasn’t realized that getting a reader to feel what they feel is separate from spewing everything onto a page.
To give the most extreme example: a sad person can’t stand on a stage and cry and expect the audience to get anything out of that. Expressing emotion in a way that someone else can immerse themselves in is much more about restraint than expression. All instrumentalists I know of go through this phase. They get good enough at their instruments that they can finally start expressing in music. What comes out sounds like Celine Dion. Their teachers let this go for a while, but at some point they have to be told the truth: what you’re doing is embarrassing. You have to tone it down. Great music is about subtlety.
The same goes for composing. Early on you catch on to some things you think express something. What you don’t realize is that everyone goes through a phase where they find those same chords or hooks. Once you move on to a more mature phase of composing, you hear those same cliche ideas and cringe like at that terrible poetry. It’s too obvious and too overwrought which pulls the listener out instead of in. What makes this a strange phenomenon is that the player can play it with sincerity and think that since they are “feeling” the music, the listener is too. It’s one of those things that you have to experience to understand I think.
Here’s another example that happens all over big budget Hollywood movies. A dad who is kind of a nice guy, so you’re rooting for him, but he’s struggling to make ends meet so has a ton on his mind wakes up and his wife says, “Don’t forget to get the cake for your daughter’s birthday tonight.” And you just know how the next 20 minutes are going to go. He’s going to have a bad day, so it’s not his fault when he forgets, but of course to everyone else it just looks like he’s a bad dad. And by the end of the movie he’s going have done something to more than make up for it. He’ll be dad of the year with epic flowing music and people crying in the audience.
From that one sentence about the cake, everything after has such a cringeworthy level of predictability that you can’t actually believe they popped another one of these pieces of trash out in exactly the same way as the last 100. They used those same cliche tricks, and somehow there were still people there who didn’t see through it and were “moved” by it. They’ll still dish out $10 to go see the same crappy writing do it again. Sure, all the specifics will be different (change dad to “gay uncle” and crappy job to “drug addiction” and cake to “present”), but at a structural level, it is exactly the same.
This brings us to Deafheaven. The reason I think this is the right conversation to have is that the line between good and bad with respect to expression is difficult to find. If you don’t get close enough to the line, you produce flat music with no content. If you accidentally cross the line, no matter how little, it is cringe inducing with its cliche over-expression. This is one of the most difficult parts of making art and worth talking about. This is the reason that changing one word can mean the difference between an excellent poem and a terrible poem.
This is also one of the reasons classic black metal succeeds. It is extreme. It is highly expressive and walks right up to that line. But it also strips away all of the pop music tricks and cliche to do this. The great bands we still listen to managed to not cross this line.
The other way to get next to the line is to use the cliche, but to tone everything else down so much that you don’t cross the line. What Deafheaven does is flawed from the start even at a philosophical or theoretical level. What do you expect when you take the extremeness of black metal and the saccharine cliche of pop and combine them? It doesn’t just nudge you over the line, it pushes you so far past the line it makes you want to slap something.
I know this is going to sound controversial, but I completely understand why people like this. It’s the same reason people would rather go to a Celine Dion concert than the symphony. It’s the same reason that people who don’t cringe when they hear the cake line go to those movies. This makes it hard to talk about this with people who don’t automatically cringe when they hear those moments on New Bermuda. I could point them out, but the people who don’t get it probably won’t benefit from being shown the problem, and those who do get it already understand the problem (even if it is difficult to articulate).