Deerhoof: Actually, You Can
At the beginning of Can’t Get You Out of My Head, the latest documentary by historian and filmmaker Adam Curtis, is a quote by anarchist activist David Graeber: “The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something we make and could just as easily make differently.” It sets the tone for a sprawling thesis about how we’ve arrived at our current state of global affairs, reminding the viewer that there’s always another path. The film shares the same message at the heart of Actually, You Can, the 18th studio album by San Francisco’s Deerhoof. It’s a record of reimagination, revolution, and reconstruction in the face of a seemingly inevitable status quo.
However, gleaning a clear message from Deerhoof’s music is like drawing water from a stone. Though singer/bassist Satomi Matsuzaki’s lyrics are playfully inscrutable, they contain moments of clarity. Chaotic opener “Be Unbarred, O Ye Gates of Hell” casts wealth disparities and labor rights into the metaphor of who benefits from a household appliance. Next, the shambling guitar-pop of “Department of Corrections” proposes that it’s time to reclaim autonomy from the powers that be: “O jailer, who’s in charge around here? And if not you then is it I? Yeah.” And the anthemic tangle that is “Ancient Mysteries, Described” switches to straight-up power chords for its ode to civil disobedience. Still, for each line that seems decipherable, twice as many are charmingly enigmatic.
The music of Actually, You Can gets its message across much more effectively. With little more than two guitars, a bass, and drums, Deerhoof conjures anxious garage funk, Tejano-infused noise rock, introspective dissonance, mercurial power pop, and just about everything in between. Guitarist John Dieterich has described the record as “utility music that makes you move and motivates you,” and indeed, each of these nine songs contorts with joyous abandon. A song as chock full of dueling riffs and fleeting tangents as “Be Unbarred, O Ye Gates of Hell” could only put people on their feet. Greg Saunier’s splashy and relentless drumming turns art-rock jams “Department of Corrections” and “Plant Thief” into songs that could soundtrack an uprising. Even the dislocated, slow-burning “Our Philosophy is Fiction” still feels like a rallying cry in the hands of a seasoned and uniquely expressive band like Deerhoof. Whatever Actually, You Can may lack in pointedness, it makes up for in raw energy.
Yet with all of the intensity and musical bedlam at work here, the brief sections of calm somehow resonate the longest. There’s something oddly hopeful and pure in the softly strummed verses of closer “Divine Comedy,” where Matsuzaki muses on yet to be realized possibilities for change. The tone of her delivery is flat and her cadence is hard to follow, but they are coupled with tender guitar chords, inviting the listener to dig deeper into the ideas behind this rare emotional break. Such reserved divergences are uncommon on Actually, You Can. So when Deerhoof does step back from their onslaught of prismatic garage band tropes, it’s a welcome reminder that rock & roll spectacle isn’t the only way to inspire change.
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