A nearly three-year gap between Deerhoof albums is a modest wait by most standards but a century in Deerhoof years. The veteran art-rock band seems to operate with an accelerated understanding of both time and creativity. Its last proper album, 2017’s Mountain Moves, was an eclectic affair with excursions into rap and opera and an enviable slate of guest stars—even at just 40 minutes, it’s perhaps the closest Deerhoof will come to its own Sandinista!.
For the follow-up, Future Teenage Cave Artists, Deerhoof follows the opposite path, eschewing outside contributors and retreating into its own insular world of noise: explosive rhythms, serrated guitar riffs, damaged fragments of melody and sweetness. The band says it was “borne of self-isolation and deprivation,” which is just as well, because self-isolation is where you’ll be listening to it.
It’s the sound only the four members of Deerhoof could make, with perhaps a greater-than-usual emphasis on keyboards: the shimmery synths infiltrating the title track, the strained piano arpeggios shepherding us into “Reduced Guilt”; the album even concludes with a deceptively straightforward recital of a Johann Sebastian Bach piece on piano. Not every experiment lands (the electronic clutter and assorted bric-a-brac in the middle of “‘Farewell’ Symphony,” the ramshackle Bach performance), but it’s all of a piece with Deerhoof’s spirit of anarchist invention.
The vulnerable moments are the key to this record’s revolutionary beating heart. Besides being Deerhoof’s most concise and insular album since La Isla Bonita (2014), Cave Artists also crystallizes the group’s increasingly vocal interest in leftist politics and feels like a rejoinder to critics who have over the years dismissed the group’s childlike lyrics as nonsense. “Fraction Anthem” is a tender socialist lullaby sung by drummer Greg Saunier, while “New Orphan Asylum for Spirited Deerchildren” (with its refrain of “Why would you shoot my Bambis?”) appears to recasts the Bambi story as an anti-oppression narrative. The title track, “Future Teenage Cave Artists,” salutes a societal outcast-turned-vandal painting animals on a cave wall: “Gonna leave it there forever while empires fall.”
Future Teenage Cave Artists’ other secret weapon is its grooves. Saunier, master of the minimalist kit, has long been one of rock’s most combustible drummers. He receives not enough credit for his chaotic deconstructions of funk rhythms (see: 2016’s “Model Behavior,” 2014’s “Paradise Girls”). If hip-hop producers exist 30 years into the future, they’ll be combing through Saunier’s drum breaks the way rap producers of the ’80s lifted breakbeats from James Brown drummer Clyde Stubblefield.
This new album provides numerous explorations of Deerhoof’s talent for harsh groove. Saunier’s virtuosic drumming powers the half-time mania of “Zazeet,” the gnarled blues-funk hybrid of “New Orphan Asylum for Spirited Deerchildren,” and the demented doo-wop of “Reduced Guilt,” which converts a “Shoo be doo wop” refrain into a disorienting groove in 5/4 time. Saunier’s vocals also take a heightened presence here, particularly on the latter track, which finds him sharing space with Satomi Matsuzaki’s sing-songy melodies. “Every morning I / Check if I have died,” he repeats, to which Matsuzaki unfailingly responds, in fragmented harmony: “I survived!”
Much like “I Will Spite Survive” from the last album, it’s a solid summation of Deerhoof’s ethos twenty-five years in: improbable survival. This band has been making this bizarre racket for a quarter century without rest. Even if nothing on here rises to the career-best heights of 2003’s Apple O’ or 2005’s The Runners Four, it’s another strong album from a band whose sheer continued existence (and refusal to bend to conventional recording standards) often feels like a triumph of absurdity in the face of encroaching hopelessness.
Zach Schonfeld is a freelance writer and journalist based in New York. He contributes regularly to Paste, Pitchfork, VICE, and other publications. Previously, he was a senior writer for Newsweek.