Let's return to 2012. Obama re-elected, the world didn't end, and the much longed for new season of Arrested Development began filming. A year unlike any other aside from one crucial way: there was a new Deerhoof album. Breakup Song is the 11th full length the band have released since their 1999 debut, and folows its predecessor, 2011's Deerhoof Vs. Evil. A short and frenetic record, it plays like the other side of the coin, staying in the same relative style over its 11 songs. It's almost as if Deerhoof have settled into the same prolific, creative groove they occupied the mid 00s, producing a string of guitar-based avant-garde noise/pop records that made them one of those “love it/hate it” bands that provoked arguments between hipster friends.
The huge difference with modern-Hoof is that they're are no longer just a guitar-based avant-garde noise/pop band. Over the last half decade, they've been adding in keyboards, samples, and other modern sounding electronic flourishes, sounding like something formed from a combination of the weirdest synth-pop band of all time and a noisy San Francisco psych-rock band. While there's certainly nothing on Deerhoof Vs. Evil and Breakup Song that is remotely as abrasive as their beloved mid 00s output, it's also true that it's easy to write them off as 'light' and 'pop leaning' without giving them their full due. If anything, one could view these two records as the band finally folding the styles of Friend Opportunity and the Green Cosmos EP into their post-The Runners Four style.
Part of me wishes Deerhoof would've taken a couple years off and combined the best bits of Deerhoof Vs. Evil and Breakup Songs into a modern sequel to The Runners Four. However, this would make for an exhausting listen. For all its variety wrung out of largely the same instrumentation, The Runners Four holds together perfectly and also works on a song-by-song basis. Breakup Songs by contrast, if blown out to twice its runtime, would be grating and tiring by the time you got to the last third. There's simply too much packed into songs this short. So what would they sound like if Deerhoof had slowed things down and, in general, stop trying so hard? Probably a more electronic sounding version The Runners Four.
Now that Deerhoof are free to use whatever instruments and musical styles they want to, it's kind of odd how they've lost some of their imagination and uniqueness. Taken in 20 or 30 second increments, the songs of Breakup Song might seem very different from each other; in actual listening conditions, however, they all kind of run together. Every song seemingly has to whip through three or four tricks of sound or structure before the band are satisfied. When you do this over and over, it stops being interesting and starts making everything sound the same.
If they didn't make their songs unpredictable and frenetic all the time, if they took a few breaths and let song arrangements develop organically, they might make something truly great again. Deerhoof keep putting out albums that don't sound like anyone else and I should love them for it. Instead, I keep thinking “well, maybe next time they'll get all of it right.” Offend Maggie and onward, every release is somehow unsatisfying and unmemorable but never bad enough to merit scorn.
Really, the main problem with the last few Deerhoof records is that they don't stick with me in the same way that their earlier works did. They're weird, but they're only weird in a cloying, self-aware way, like a death metal cover of a J-pop song, or Low playing a set of Misfits covers for a Halloween show. Back in the day you'd stumble on Deerhoof and you couldn't tell if they were playing their instruments very badly or extremely well; eventually you realized you didn't care either way. Now their music gives off the impression that everything is so easy to them that they're paradoxically trying too hard to compensate for it. There is still that same visceral rush and whimsical, devil-may-care abandon to the music they're producing these days, making these albums undeniably Deerhoof in spite of how different they sound compared to Apple O'...but I'm perpetually left wishing they would stop trying to push ahead and take a breather.