Over time the desire to shun easy classification can blunt creativity, and after a while, you imagine that being a permanently innovating outsider must start to feel exhausting. A long established band who doesn’t know their next musical move, carries an almost weightier burden than one that is expected to pump out the same, safe, well wrung material year after year.
Constantly reaching for sonic innovation, ever since their inception almost two decades ago, San Francisco natives Deerhoof have had a determination to follow the path less traveled which has seen them maintain a self acknowledged unpredictability above the considerations of convention. In the past, this has led to mixed results, because whilst it’s noble and invigorating to be at the vanguard of your own style, that same freewheeling approach can veer dangerously toward aural vampirism.
Happily their 12th release, Breakup Song shows more of the former and far less of the latter.
Feint insinuation from the title aside, it’s a mistake to think that Breakup Song is Deerhoof’s Boatman’s Call. In actuality, it’s a high energy-pop bullet train, fueled by sugar coated earworms, incessantly skittish beats and looping riffs, which brim with life. From the crunching industrial grind of the album’s eponymous opener “Breakup Songs”, to the playful videogame samba of “Mario’s Flaming Whiskers III”. It seems that we have found Deerhoof at their most anarchic and whimsical, ready to take us by the hand and lead us off partying into the night.
It helps that it’s eleven tracks clock in at a spry thirty minutes. The band refusing to remain static, seemingly for fear that if they stand still for too long they might cease to be relevant, or worse, have a definitive label attached to their sound. This proves to be no bad thing, as they pull off feats which a less self assured group might find unassailable. “To Fly Or Not to Fly” dissolves from towering synth refrains, into a lightweight eighties rhythm, before finally erupting in a noise-rock soundscape, all in under two minutes. Then casually shrugging that off they slip into the punchy Latin funk of “The Trouble With Candyhands”, a move that feels as effortless as a chord change.
If there’s a vague thematic through-line, it may be found in the hypnotic falsetto of Satomi Matsuzaki. Her lyrics feature half glimpsed allusions to a relationship in flux, as on album standout, “There’s That Grin”, where she pleads, “Don’t make me fall in love with you again.” If anything though, her playground-like chants and discordant non-sequiturs act as a vocal linchpin around which the other band members revolve. Sparking a dynamism between the hyper kinetic rhythms of drummer Greg Saunier and the infectious, spiraling, jingles laid down by John Dieterich and Ed Rodriguez. Which, when it works best, on “Bad Kids to the Front” and “Mothball the Fleet”, creates the feeling of a band at their most vital.
Maybe the most hitherto unforeseen revelation to come from Breakup Song, is a clarity that has been hard to pin down (and was occasionally absent) from Deerhoof’s previous outings. This new lucidity might be bemoaned by some, but more than enough of what makes them a great act is on show. They just feel more well honed this time around, conveying their music in simple, direct terms. Focusing less on the negative aspects of their discordancy and more on the freedom and frissons of joy that exists in that limbo, between knowing and unknowing. Proof, if it was needed, that 18 years into their career, time has yet to diminish Deerhoof and their their seemingly inexhaustible creativity.