Attempting to conjure the kind of thing album titles are made for
by Jericho Cerrona
Deerhoof’s 16th album, The Magic, was recorded in an abandoned office in Mexico, and after the streamlined art-pop of 2014’s La Isla Bonita (which, let’s face it, is only a pop album in a Deerhoof kind of way), the band have used this enclosed space in order to return to their lo-fi roots. This doesn't mean that one of indie rock’s most experimental, playful, and long-standing acts have gone back and contrived a more “youthful” sound, but that they simply see musical variation as a means for sonic exploration. This is all to say that their latest effort sounds very much like a Deerhoof record; jaunty guitar licks, odd-time signature drumming, and of course, Satomi Matsuzaki’s effervescent vocals, but from song to song, there’s a surprising amount of variety here. Perhaps that’s why they choose to name their album The Magic. Attempts at rediscovery after playing together for over 20 years would be daunting for any unit, but Deerhoof still somehow manage to convey a level of brash playfulness. Perhaps they are just really good at faking it; recording in such a way where the material oozes that crackle and pop younger bands often conjure effortlessly, but such statements are foolish in light of seeing Deerhoof rip live. There’s simply no faking it. They are the real deal.
Even if The Magic isn’t a great Deerhoof record like Runners Four and Friend Opportunity, it’s still proof that they can do fuzzy garage rock and 80s-tinged New Wave with the best of them, provided one can get past the fact that the abrasive side of the band has softened with age. The sugary poppiness of La Isla Bonita, which gained its fair share of detractors, wasn’t exactly a step backwards so much as a way for Deerhoof to fully embrace the contours of pop accessibility which have always been on the fringes of their music. Here, they scale back in terms of production clarity by turning up the tape hiss and adding a few more avant-garde flourishes (mostly in terms of squiggly, analog keyboards), but at it’s heart, The Magic is a fairly accessible listen by Deerhoof standards.
Right away, opener “The Devil and his Anarchic Surrealist Retinue”, blows out of the gate with slightly out of tune guitar strumming, interweaving chords, and Matsuzaki’s chirpy vocal inflections... confirming, basically, something that needs no confirmation; that no matter how manic sonic detours and shifts in style, Deerhoof will always sound exactly like Deerhoof. The first wrinkle in terms of variation comes with “That Ain’t No Life To Me”, a scuzzy garage rock anthem with guitarist Ed Rodriguez on vocals, which is probably the closest the band has ever come to conjuring straight up punk energy. There’s whimsical sing-alongs with killer bass (“Life is Suffering”), 80’s analog synth romanticism (“Criminals of a Dream”), funky James Brown soul filtered through a can of weird (“Model Behavior”), and even more male-fronted garage stompers (“Dispossessor”). More unexpected are the moments of lyrical clarity and perspective. For instance, the aforementioned “Model Behavior”, with its crackling bass line, nimble drumming, and retro keyboard washes, could easily been seen as yet another tune of off-kilter playfulness. However, Matsuzaki’s vocals, usually unintelligible, are clearer here than usual, bemoaning A system/ A victim/ A candidate; which suggests a political call to arms in the Bernie Sanders mode to embrace a more hopeful world.
In this Donald Trump’s version of America we’ve found ourselves in, it’s refreshing to hear a band so loose and reaching for the kind of inspiration that only comes in the moment. Rather than meticulously arranging and fussing over their aesthetic, Deerhoof basically have approximated an album which corresponds to our instant reaction Tweet paradigm. Yet, instead of realizing that said tweet was a grossly reactionary mistake and deleting it, Deerhoof leave it out there, scrappy flaws and all.