by Max Freedman (@anticlimaxwell)
For a band that’s constantly changing its sound and experimenting with structure, Deerhoof’s songs sure sound solely like the work of Deerhoof. The way Satomi Matsuzaki’s gleeful, childlike vocals and often near-gibberish language splash against fuming beds of wiry guitars and some of the most technically impressive percussion of our time always screams Deerhoof. The key to the band’s work never tiring is that subsequent albums present vastly different stylistic approaches; 2005’s creaky, floating The Runners Four gave way to the synth-punk silliness of 2007’s Friend Opportunity, gradually forming a path towards 2014’s La Isla Bonita, a strikingly accessible 35 minutes of crunchy, punk-infused tunes.
With newest album The Magic, though, Deerhoof haven’t progressed much from La Isla Bonita, instead pinning down its stabbing guitars and infusing their most melodic moments with dazzling synthetic flourishes. The result is a collection that, for once, often sees Deerhoof in a previously established comfort zone; its biggest surprise is that it’s Deerhoof’s most enjoyable album in nearly a decade.
The Magic suggests that Deerhoof’s nearly twenty years of constant shapeshifting can be attributed to the band’s inability to feel happy with its sound and, further, that La Isla Bonita solved this recurring problem. Here, it sounds like Deerhoof look back on La Isla Bonita rather fondly, primarily riding its raucous guitars into waves of unabashed sonic assault. It’s clear from opener “The Devil and His Anarchic Surrealist Retinue” that listeners are in for sprightly rock songs that don’t do much to challenge Deerhoof’s past trends, but nevertheless sound more vital than this band has in ages. “Kafe Mania!” follows the opening track with Deerhoof’s most AC/DC riff to date, and precedes one of the album’s strongest standouts, “That Ain’t No Life for Me.” Thirteen albums in, Deerhoof finally gives guitarist Ed Rodriguez, a band member since 2008, the chance to take lead vocal for Deerhoof’s 112 most straightforwardly punk seconds to date.
Not all of The Magic is thoroughly punk, despite songs like “Dispossessor,” “Nurse Me,” and “Plastic Thrills” blatantly declaring their love for grandiose guitars. As with La Isla Bonita, a handful of faintly abstract, more explicitly quirky moments manifest. “Model Behavior” is a wispy strand of synth-littered music that juxtaposes funky verses with a sweetly atmospheric chorus; “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” dips back into the slowest waters of Friend Opportunity’s synth-punk corner. Although a good deal of The Magic centers on scrambling power chords and a rack of overdrive and distortion pedals, Deerhoof place the album’s sparser tunes at the precise moments in its sequencing where they’re likeliest to stand out, helping the guitar rippers remain distinct.
Existing in both circles is The Magic’s entry into the Best Deerhoof Songs Ever roster, “Criminals of the Dream.” The third song Deerhoof released to promote The Magic, “Dream” paves its intro via gorgeous, ghostly synths that segue into a steady groove of fuzz-fried bass and guitars prancing forward at an ample tempo. An eventual slide back into the synthy ambience of the song’s introduction underlies Matsuzaki’s consistently tender vocals, some of her most beautiful to date. Its final moments see Deerhoof shrouding the verses’ frizzy guitars in the moody synths that have henceforth outlined the song, resulting in one of Deerhoof’s most beautifully introspective moments.
“Criminals of the Dream” is worth describing in such detail because it attests to what raises The Magic to the highest ranks of Deerhoof albums. It transforms previously whimsical elements – remember, this is a band who turned the lyrics “choo choo choo choo, beep beep/choo choo choo choo choo, choo choo choo choo choo” into one of their most memorable choruses – of past Deerhoof songs into a sprawling lucid dream of a song that splits the line between the album’s hot and cool sides. This is a good description of The Magic in general: it’s a fiery listen all the way through, but it has enough restful moments to keep the sprint towards the finish line strong and steady.