19 Jan 2017

Albums of 2016: Deerhoof's The Magic

I saw Deerhoof perform back in November and, while their new album didn’t feature too prominently on their setlist, its title—The Magic—struck me as a particularly appropriate designation for their show. I don’t mean this in any banal acclamatory sense—that it was a ‘magical evening’, or that their playing was ‘magical’, etc. It wasn't just that the performance produced the kind of astonishing effortless joy that we would might describe as ‘magic’ (although it was a phenomenal show). It's more that, for me, the band seemed to evoke the aesthetics, the mechanics and the performative vocabulary of stage magic as a genre: the world of illusionists, conjurors, escapologists and hypnotists, frilly sleeves and blow-dried hair, dry ice and lasers, big-budget live magic in all its cheesiness.

There are three precise ways in which Deerhoof’s live show reminded me of stage magic. Firstly, Deerhoof gigs are now dance gigs: their grooves, especially from the most recent four albums or so, are totally irresistible. Treguna mekoides trecorum satis dee: their music gives life to inanimate bodies. Yet rather than furnishing a venue with interlocking flows and thermodynamic currents of rhythm and counter-rhythm to ride, in the manner of most dance music, Deerhoof’s music takes possession of individual limbs and pulls them in different directions. Theirs is a malevolent school of enchantment, with a mischievous streak, recalling the clichéd ‘voodoo puppeteer’ in children's cartoons, or the twinkle-eyed hypnotist who has audience members clucking like chickens. While a lot of dance music invites you to move with the music, or even grants you extraordinary powers of super-strength, lightning speed or flight, Deerhoof’s music takes hold of you and forcibly moves you around. It is trippy, not just because it takes you on a physical trip, but because it will leave you tripping over your own feet.

Secondly, their live performance exudes a theatrics of magic spectacle. In Deerhoof shows, noise becomes a barely containable force to be conjured up, compelled into musical obedience, and then let loose onto the audience. Although their songs evoke a phantasmagoria of musical styles, clichés and references, in their live shows these are always at risks of breaking down into generalised chaos. The band’s frequent time and tempo changes, abrupt shifts between songs, and twin guitar parts that career in and out of synchronicity lend a feeling of palpable danger to the live show, with the four musicians forming a magic circle around the demonic noise of their creation, wielding their instruments like wands in an attempt to bend it to their collective will.

But this magic circle is also a magic circus. Deerhoof are a daredevil band; they add bravura feats of group virtuosity—death drops of feedback-filled suspense between phrases, lavishly rubato solos that seem to slow down time—before executing perfect landings with absolute nonchalance. It is the exact equivalent of the high wire or trapeze act: the thrill of an expert feint, a 'botched' stunt that flips into an even more extravagant trick, the heart-pounding moments of stillness before the escapologist surfaces from the icy water.

The third ‘magic’ dimension of Deerhoof’s music is the way that it both resists and demands explanation. Like all the best magical tricks, it elicits a breathless ‘How did they do it?!’ Most reviews of Deerhoof’s music marvel at this mystery—their constant sense of invention, their unmistakable identity, the way they combine so many stylistic elements, etc—without really attempting to ‘reveal the magicians’ secrets’. These reviews reproduce the band’s mystique, resorting to tautology (‘this is the most Deerhoof album that Deerhoof have ever Deerhoofed’, etc.), listing sonic references and making broad comparisons to other Deerhoof albums, alongside generic expressions of awe and/or cynicism. But as a listener, the songs also invite a faintly obsessive desire to deconstruct or even to debunk the ‘magic’ that holds them together: Where does this riff come from? Which section is the ‘chorus’? Where have I heard that motif before? What happened to the downbeat? How can a song sound so familiar and yet so strange? What the hell is that phrase she keeps singing?!

Here, we arrive at my review of the album The Magic, because it was this album that made me realise how gleefully and perversely Deerhoof’s music provokes and frustrates these attempts at infiltrating the ‘magicians’ circle’. In fact, The Magic explicitly thematises this push and pull between magician and audience—the trolling of the indignant truth-seekers, the manipulation of the spectators’ disbelief—in a richly ambiguous collection of songs that tap directly into the absurdist spectacle that was 2016…


The Magic is a variety show, programmed from reminiscences of past albums: ‘Kafe Mania!’ and ‘Nurse Me’ recall the avant-cheerleader punk of Apple O’, ‘Criminals of the Dream’ and ‘Acceptance Speech’ both radiate the primetime cheesiness of The Runners Four’s ‘O’Malley, Former Underdog’, while the groovier tracks—whether funky, tropical or kosmisch—would fit variously among the band’s most recent run of exceptional pop albums. Moreover, this ‘variety show’ feeling is underpinned by lead vocal cameos from the other three members of the band, coinciding with a new strand of relatively ‘no-frills’ garage rock: ‘That Ain’t No Life To Me’ (Ed Rodriguez), ‘Dispossessor’ (John Dieterich) and ‘Plastic Thrills’ (Greg Saunier). The straightforwardness of these tracks paradoxically sets them apart from the rest of the otherwise typically ‘weird’ tracklist, as if they were enclosed in quote marks or presented as self-conscious ‘musical numbers’. Regular vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki’s faltering cover of the Ink Spots’ ‘I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire’ would appear to complete this set of ‘solo spots’: four numbers that signpost their own 'songness' within the more fluid context of the record.

The Magic establishes this variety/magic show frame from the very beginning, with the opening track: ‘The Devil and His Anarchic-Surrealist Retinue’. As the album sleeve points out (along with many of the reviews), this title is borrowed from Alex Ross’s history of twentieth-century music, The Rest is Noise. However, what the title is actually referencing (which barely any reviewers mentioned) is Bulgakov’s magical satire The Master and Margarita, which Ross was discussing in reference to Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony and Anna Akhmatova’s poetry. This reference is crucial; one of the early highlights of the book involves Professor Woland (Bulgakov’s incarnation of the devil, who is ‘in Moscow to present a performance of “black magic” and then expose its machinations’) putting on a show at Moscow’s Variety Theatre. As well as card tricks and ‘illusions’ including the beheading of the emcee, Woland’s entourage of performers shower the audience in cash and beautiful clothes which later disintegrate, leaving the bourgeois spectators naked and scandalised. One member of the audience demands that the trick be revealed, and in response, the magician reveals that audience member’s own secret affair with an actress. The next day, the staff at the theatre are compelled to break into spontaneous song.

On the one hand, this reference to a Russian novel steeped in national folklore and supernatural pageantry relates Deerhoof’s music to a rich vein of fantasy stagecraft: the ornate and exotic magic operas and ballets of the turn of the century; Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky; the orientalist epics and symbolist fables of late Romantic/early Modernist tone poems; the gaudy costumes, stage machinery and pyrotechnics of dragons, sorcerers and mermaids; Mussorgsky, Stravinsky, and particularly Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges, the dramatis personae of which reads like an early Deerhoof tracklist…

(And to reinforce this connection with one further piece of geekiness, ‘The Devil and His Anarchic-Surrealist Retinue’ transitions into the following track with a rippling whole-tone scale: one of the key musical signifiers that came to stand in for the supernatural around the turn of the century.)

At the same time, I am drawn to the Variety Theatre episode, and the magician who confounds the disbelieving audience member with his own inconsistency, as a potential clue to help unravel Deerhoof's idiosyncratic style. A good magic trick thrives on disbelief, it anticipates and re-deploys the audience’s scepticism to catch them unawares, it provides false explanations that only leave the spectator more puzzled, and casually flips the script with a final sting that brings all the spectator’s gradually accumulated certainties crashing down. It is manipulative, it takes the audience for a ride, and ultimately, it is the stuff of pure entertainment.

As I hear it, Deerhoof’s recent music reproduces the structural logic of live magic. This is not to say that it relies on a ‘trick’ itself: some kind of superficial gimmick that could be ‘revealed’. Instead, it uses the syntax of the magic trick, the grammar of showmanship, from stage patter and showy introductions, through misdirection and sleight of hand, via red herrings and false fumbles, to a climactic reveal or a sudden disappearance. Motifs magically switch places and melodies vanish, only to reappear at the far side of the track. It's useless to fix upon this or that stylistic trope or reference as a way in: every allusion is an illusion. The listener can neither predict what will happen next, nor are they ever left behind; instead, they are swept up in the unfolding of each skit, proceeding through its own logic, before being left either dazzled and delighted or thoroughly disoriented (and perhaps vaguely peeved). Was it mirrors? Are they twins? Is there a trapdoor?

While earlier Deerhoof songs may have confronted the listener with strange fragments to make their own sense of, more recent songs—including ‘The Devil…’, ‘Life Is Suffering’, ‘Criminals of the Dream’ and ‘Learning to Apologize Effectively’ on this album—transport the listener many musical miles from the opening riff, producing their own logic as they go. Shifts between sections never seem arbitrary and key changes are intuitive and gratifying; at any given moment, the listener has a pretty good sense of orientation (what’s forwards and what’s backwards, what’s real and what’s not), and yet once the song is finished, it can be difficult to retrace or reproduce it in your mind. As if to emphasise all this, Deerhoof mischievously include a cover of a song (‘I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire’) whose thoroughly predictable structure is curtailed just before the satisfaction of recapitulation.

The grammar of showmanship infuses Deerhoof’s music on another level as well. Not only do the band perform as musical magicians, they also serve as their own 'house musicians', accompanying their ‘tricks’ with drum rolls and vamps, playing themselves on and off, punctuating their punchlines. Their tracks will sometimes sound like the musical trace of a suspenseful act happening elsewhere, with irregular repetitions, false starts and sudden fanfares signalling feats accomplished or failed. Yet it is this very 'accompaniment music' that is the matter of their magic. Integral to this is the role of Satomi Matsuzaki's vocals as master of ceremonies, ringmaster, compère, animateur, dance caller, etc etc (and she has been known to teach dance steps at live shows). Certain critics, perhaps frustrated by the lack of clear lyrical themes to build an easy review around, will talk about Matsuzaki’s lyrics in terms of ‘nonsense lyrics’. While the lyrics are frequently absurdist, and often effectively indiscernible, there is a big difference between ‘nonsense’ on a page and the same words when sung in a musical context. The sense of Matsuzaki’s words is provided by their function within the context of the song, and this function is usually very clear. Indeed, Deerhoof frequently operate in a kind of ‘presentational’ mode, with Matsuzaki’s vocal lines 'presenting themselves' through a demonstration of their sheer functionality. She sings a word and something happens; she sings another word and something else happens. What the words mean doesn’t really matter at all; what matters is their functions (e.g., causative) and the relation between these functions (e.g., producing different effects).

For instance, while playground rhymes have always been an important influence on Matsuzaki's lyrics, such rhymes aren’t only interesting for their simplicity, surrealness, and formal repetition. They frequently also have a game function, whereby they initiate or regulate certain physical responses or gestures. In the same way, the various forms of direct address in entertainment genres—by performer or compère or ringmaster—always carry the trace of a ritualised function, existing halfway between acting and actual conversation, not so much providing the audience with new information or creating a social bond, but rather cueing action, directing attention and eliciting pre-established responses. In this mode, Matsuzaki’s presentational lyrics transport the listener through each track, announcing new elements, indicating important details, and putting the audience at ease until a new reveal takes them by surprise again. Of course, the lyrics also function as ‘magic words’: their apparent arbitrariness (a list of types of coffee, for example) imbued with arcane power, making things happen.

At the intersection of all these elements is a kind of ‘staginess’ that extends from Deerhoof’s live show through to their studio material. The musical structures perform a meta-showmanship—a distillation of the kind of performativity that sustains such diverse genres as beauty pageants and comedy revues, dinner shows and dog shows, synchronised swimming and competitive ballroom dancing. I suppose what I'm arguing here is that, while earlier Deerhoof used a child-like naivety to keep both prog and punk at arm’s length (think the twisted children’s assembly vibes of Milk Man), they now achieve this through a certain degree of crypto-FABULOUSNESS. This was certainly my impression when their lustrous, costumed live show radiated through the diminishing crowd of black-clad German hipsters last November. It is also the impression I get from the incursions of Latin and Afro-Caribbean rhythms onto their records since 2011's Deerhoof vs. Evil (most extravagantly on Breakup Songs‘The Trouble with Candyhands’), which hint cheekily at the plasticky excesses of lounge and exotica, along with calypso and tropicália. Similarly, the Ink Spots cover on The Magic shimmers and gurgles like a lo-fi Poseidon fantasy—all mirror balls, starfish bikinis and plaster seahorses lowered from the flies—with its murky vibes loop giving the slightest bossa-nova flavour. It's certainly rather delightful to hear the band’s virtuosity in relation to Liberace and Mantovani, as well as the fruitier freaks of glam, funk and hair metal.


So, The Magic is a hallucinatory revue, with whimsical skits about coffee and hospitalisation, big-budget musical numbers like ‘Criminals of the Dream’ and ‘Acceptance Speech’, and spot-lit solos for each ensemble member, along with a lot of musical costume changes and a tongue-in-cheek Hot Chocolate quotation. But there is something else going on here as well, something darker: a certain shadow is cast over the album from the early Bulgakov reference onwards. A definite vein of negativity runs through the garage punk tracks, beginning with the lyrics of ‘That Ain’t No Life To Me’, which dig deep into the death, craving an escape from a violently divided world via the ‘grave’ of a lover. This euphoric nihilism is answered by the nihilistic euphoria of ‘Life Is Suffering’, whose titular refrain is preceded by ‘screams of joy’.

Following this thread, the deceptively feel-good ‘Criminals of the Dream’ deliver a sing-a-long lyric that begins by stating ‘It’s not right, if everyone fights, to dream at night’, but ends by repeating: ‘Dream you can dream you can dream/Things aren’t as bad as they seem’. Significantly, this change in tack occurs via a hazy interlude, which goes something like:

And when you try to get into the evening
Why would you turn a shadow into a show?
And when you try to open windows alone
That shadow locks the window
Only shuts
That shadow tries the window
Only lies

This vaguely sinister lullaby gives way to the feverish funk nightmare of ‘Model Behavior’—‘Fire, I’m on fire/Don’t let me fall (Do re mi fa)’—with the refrain: ‘A system, a victim, a candidate’. Combining these lyrics with the earlier Bulgakov reference, the shadow begins to take the discernible form of another devilish showman, who brought his dark magic roadshow to audiences across the country throughout 2016 (along with a similarly defensive and petty approach to audience members attempting to see through his tricks). The shadow of the orange devil in his golden tower gives a determinedly sinister tinge to the lyrics of ‘I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire’ (‘I don’t ever care to rise to power’), along with the abrupt conclusion that casts doubts on the singer's purported sincerity. What’s more, the track is followed immediately by the triumphant ‘Acceptance Speech’, which gleefully declares, ‘We love to visit your towns/We’ve loved to visit your towns/We’d love to visit your towns’.

And yet this is Deerhoof’s theme tune and no-one else’s: ‘Deerhoo-oof! Here we are!’ The band mobilise the ambiguity of Bulgakov’s satire and its demonic posse, who brought death and disorder to Soviet Moscow, but also an invigorating wave of flamboyant chaos that was ultimately liberatory (for the title characters at any rate). Deerhoof’s fabulous pageants have always included sinister figures, fauvist monsters and cartoon demons ('Satan' himself made a previous appearance on 1999's Holdypaws), although none were quite as deadly as the President and His Libertarian-White Supremacist Retinue. Still, as well as being magicians and acrobats, the band are also superheroes, as was established on ‘Super Duper Rescue Heads!’ from Deerhoof vs. Evil. With ‘Acceptance Speech’, Deerhoof accept their mission and reaffirm their purpose: to bring their travelling vehicle of irresistibly anarchic magic to everyone’s town.

Given how hard it can be to write about Deerhoof's music, it is curious that reviewers don’t discuss the band’s politics more often. After all, this is a band whose previous album, La Isla Bonita, painted an ironically exoticised portrait of the USA as ‘the beautiful island’ (via an allusion to one of its most famous cultural exports), to confront the country’s hypocritical self-image in relation to migration policy. I’ve written previously about the politics of Deerhoof’s sound, in relation to Satomi’s vocal presence as an ‘inassimilable’ element in every stylistic trope they evoke. She is the sonic migrant who resists assimilation, thereby confounding any imaginary idea of ‘natural’ (or ‘national’) genre. Similarly, Deerhoof’s magical mystery roadshow is a kind of juggernaut of anti-assimilation, of noisy, sparkly, rainbow-coloured difference, of sheer excess and flamboyance. What’s more, it’s a magic show whose grand finale entails a first-generation immigrant’s account of effective and efficient healthcare provision (‘Nurse Me’).

In conclusion:

Solidarity with all vulnerable people in the USA at this frightening time.

Fuck Trump.

I am tough
And I don't give up
—Model Behavior