If you’ve paid attention to end-of-the-year album lists, you’ve probably noticed a soft pink album with nine capitalized letters on its cover sitting somewhere near the top. Here it is at Spin, Pitchfork, Sputnikmusic, Stereogum, and the AV Club; even review aggregate Metacritic ranks it the best reviewed major release of 2013. The album is Sunbather, the second LP from San Francisco metal outfit Deafheaven. It’s an album of catharsis: layered guitars, driving drums, terrific bass fills, and agonizingly throat-falls-out vocals. For those not accustomed to the genre frontman George Clarke’s shrill screams are an immediate put-off, but what makes Sunbather so accessible (even for non-metalheads) and so well-received is that Clarke’s cries are balanced by the swelling instrumentals. Many have labeled Deafheaven “post-black” metal, meaning that it combines the uplifting rise and fall action of post-rock with the rasps and guitar tremolos of black metal. Steven Hyden of Grantland wrote a superb article back when Sunbather was released detailing exactly why the album is so transcendent. His third to last paragraph encapsulates most of what can (or cannot) be said about Sunbather’s gleam.
So check the album out if you’d like. Really, even if you can’t stand metal, the sonics are worth your time. But the music itself is not the only thing I want to talk about here. As a responsible Calvin College English major, I noticed the band’s name borrows from the third line of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29: “And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries…” In a 2012 interview Clarke acknowledges he knows of the poem, but says the band’s moniker did not come directly from Shakespeare’s heart-breaking line. Still, I think the sonnet, and Shakespeare in general, help frame the sounds and words of Sunbather—this is not to compare Deafheaven to the Bard, but only to dig into that cathartic tug that characterizes both.
Sunbather opens with one of its best songs. “Dream House,” narrates a seeping malaise similar to the one that plagues Binx Bolling in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, and it ends with Clarke screaming a short dialogue: “‘I’m dying.’ / ‘Is it blissful?’ / ‘It’s like a dream.’ / ‘I want to dream.’” The dreaminess barely masks the depressing sentiment, not all too unlike the first eight lines of Sonnet 29 where the narrator curses his existence while imagining himself with “this man’s art, and that man’s scope.” It’s an unavoidable dream rather close to a nightmare. The malaise in Sunbather carries over to the third track, “Sunbather.” Here are the first few lines: “Held my breath and drove through a maze of wealthy homes. / I watched how green the trees were. / I watched the steep walkways and the white fences. / I gripped the wheel.”
The oncoming dread is hard to ignore, and the same with Shakespeare: “With what I most enjoy contented least.” But of course, we know the sonnet’s turn toward a soaring closing couplet: “For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings / That then I scorn to change my state with kings.” But what about Sunbather? The album’s closer, “The Pecan Tree,” doesn’t give us that kind of hope, at least not lyrically. The song tells of a fractured relationship between father and son, and the last lines are chilling: “I am my father’s son. / I am no one. / I cannot love. / It’s in my blood.”
Yet these words come at the climax of the song, where the guitars swirl in harmony and the track truly soars. There’s a clear juxtaposition in the works. And too, in a recent interview with Pitchfork, Clarke emphasizes the goal of putting Sunbather together: “[W]e thought that if we could express the full realm of emotion while retaining our sound, we should try to do that.”
And that’s the thing about Shakespeare and Sunbather both—they envelope the whole spectrum of these lives we live, from the lowest lows to the exhilarating highs. Shakespeare’s sonnets can only use words, but the fluidity is still there—we move from very low to very high. And maybe that’s what makes Sunbather so appealing. Unlike a lot of metal (especially black metal), the focus is not only on the darkness. The lyrics mostly narrate the depressive, but often the shimmering instrumentals highlight the hope. There is dread and there is joy; a light shines through.
Brad Zwiers (’12) graduated from Calvin College in 2012 and Western Theological Seminary in 2015. He will not be graduating from any more schools. He often stares at books he wishes he could read but knows he will not finish and goes for long walks with his wife, Gwyn. Sometimes he plays basketball and always he follows the greatest sporting club in the world, Liverpool F.C.