Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.
Deerhoof's never-look-back aesthetic has become a calling card, and its unpredictability a point of pride. Time and again, the San Francisco band has surprised listeners and pushed them in new musical directions they might not immediately want to go, and yet it's hard not to loyally follow along with each sonic jump. Still, when a group has churned through as many bizarro ideas as Deerhoof has over the course of a brilliant run of albums that date back to the mid-1990s, you have to wonder how it keeps coming back with something different.
To follow up 2014's excellent La Isla Bonita, Deerhoof's members ditched the comforts of a traditional studio, rented a sterile abandoned office in the New Mexico desert and, with nothing written beforehand, just played. Seven days later, Deerhoof reemerged with its 14th album, The Magic, an eclectic 15 songs inspired by the music each member — vocalist and bassist Satomi Matsuzaki, guitarists and multi-instrumentalists Ed Rodriguez and John Dieterich, and drummer Greg Saunier — grew up loving.
Deerhoof has always been masterful in concocting challenging albums that smash together genres, dissect structure and texture, and explore the depths of polyrhythms — and then abruptly blow it all up with acidic eruptions. In that regard, The Magic is no different. Bristling with electricity, these new songs are propelled by Saunier's frenzied drumming and Matsuzaki's funky bass lines, searing synth sequencers and finger-flying guitars that playfully switch things up when you least expect it. It adds up to a tense, visceral, unrelenting sound that doesn't let listeners get comfortable for very long.
"The Devil And His Anarchic Surrealist Retinue" (which borrows its title from a descriptor in Alex Ross' book The Rest Is Noise) is emblematic of Deerhoof's turn-on-a-dime changes: It opens with slack-stringed strumming and Saunier's ferocious snare-drum attack, a disjunct arpeggio pattern and a swoony slide guitar to accentuate Matsuzaki's bright vocals. But then the beat drops, yielding to a jazz-infused R&B bridge that provides a smooth counterpoint to the harshness.
Elsewhere, Deerhoof cycles through sounds that deliver a little something for everyone — from infectious handclaps, rattling tambourines and messy surf-rock guitars ("Plastic Thrills") to pulsing sequencers and thick power chords ("Learning To Apologize Effectively") to bit-crunched, rubbery grooves ("Little Hollywood"). There's the sneering thrash of "That Ain't No Life To Me" and "Dispossessor," which sound as if played from a cheaply dubbed cassette; and there's the warped reimagining of "I Don't Want To Set The World On Fire" — a romantic classic popularized by early doo-wop group The Ink Spots, overhauled with dusty drum-machine beats and chiming pads.
More than just the sound of loud, off-kilter textures colliding, The Magic captures a love for pop melody that provides a perfect antidote to the dissonance, with songs that are as catchy as they are noisy. "Criminals Of The Dream" eschews the grit for dancey glitter, as Matsuzaki reassuringly coos, "Dream you can dream... I know you can dream / Things aren't as bad as they seem" atop shimmering harmonies. In another highlight, "Life Is Suffering," Deerhoof establishes a meaty backbone, punctuated by piercing attacks high on the guitar neck. But then the chorus shifts to a more soulful mood when Matsuzaki and Saunier duet, "Note my screams of joy, higher and higher and higher / Life is suffering, man."
Deerhoof's words on The Magic are as abstract as ever, yet they evocatively function more as another rhythmic element, ping-ponging delightfully off the tongue. That's true of "Kafe Mania!," a gnarly riff-centric shout-out to coffee drinks ("Cappuccino! Macchiato! Affogato! Cortado!"), or the '80s arena-rock homage "Acceptance Speech," which delivers a self-referential introduction ("Deerhoof here we are, Deerhoof here we come / We love to visit your towns...") that could easily kick off every show from now on. Meanwhile, the syncopated jam "Model Behavior" digs into politics, as Matsuzaki and Saunier sing, "A model behavior, a candidate / I am tough and I don't give up."
As much as Deerhoof seeks new territory, the band rarely loses its own thread. No matter the genre trappings, Deerhoof's rhythmic precision and off-the-rails improvisation, abrasiveness and melodicism are always dialed into its DNA and immediately identifiable. It's what makes The Magic's most unanticipated moments all the more daring and exhilarating.