Franz Schubert wrote Der Erlkonig by adapting Goethe’s ballad of the same name over an unsettling piano score that was one of the more haunting moments of the German Romantic era. The story was based on a folkloric demon that haunts the Black Forest and entices a youngster with promises of a sweet, all-singing, all-dancing dreamland. The boy, who is traveling with his father through a foggy stretch of forest, is frightened by the images of this unknown sycophant. It’s too late, however, and the boy has already seen things he wasn’t meant to see. The frenzied ride ends when the boy’s father makes it back to the farm, only to look upon the body of his dead child.
The concept of a mysterious, potentially sinister figure who courts the favor of young children is at the center of Milk Man, Deerhoof’s sixth LP and one of its best. We find the chaotic but catchy San Franciscan foursome in a slightly more complex mood than on last year’ jubilant Apple O’. This time, the entire album is focused and conceptual, sketching a moody story — part intrigue, part dreamy subterfuge and part horrific romp — fueled by the title character’s menacing gaze. The form of this ambiguous Milk Man emanates from the drawings of Tokyo artist Ken Kagami, whose demonic strawberries and bananas can be heard in the songs’ notes.
The journey of the Milk Man echoes the tale of Goethe’s The Erlking in part. We discover from the rock-heavy title track that he is a "weird man" with "banana stabbed to the arms" who promises children beautiful things: "Boys and girls/ Be mine/ I’ll take you to my dream land." The ominous "Giga Dance" imagines the children encountering the Milk Man and realizing "Home is better/ than it seemed." Then comes an obligatory chase number with the instrumental track, "Rainbow Silhouette of the Milky Rain," whose tempo and swooping movements mimic Schubert’s piano.
At this point, similarities with The Erlking diminish, and the story of the Milk Man pursues a different course. Surely the lyrics and songs don’t construct a definitive narrative, so the listener is at liberty to determine what is happening during most of the album. My interpretation has the Milk Man trapping the children in his castle high in the sky, just for the fun of scaring them and/or having them frighten themselves (he is a figment of overactive imaginations resulting from rapid consumption of sugary cereal, right?) only to let them wake up in their beds when the castle explodes. The finale, "New Sneakers," a whimsical number driven by organ and piccolo, demonstrates a celebratory new feeling — finding them "happy to fly/ over fields so real" and the frightening journey at a close.
Deerhoof’s signature is insanely catchy pop songs that manage to remain abrasive and noisy. But they don’t shy away from adding new dimensions to their sound on this record: the evil funhouse organ of "Giga Dance," the bubbly drum machine rhythm from their Spanish-language debut "Desaparecere," or the electro-splatter of the truly silly "Dog on the Sidewalk." As always, Satomi Matsuzaki’s elfin voice conjures up as much diversity and mood as the dual guitars of John Dietrich and Chris Cohen. The raucous, unpredictable drumming of Greg Saunier rounds this accomplished group off. Slyly oscillating between innocent la-la-la’s and somber melancholy, the music is as manic and frightful as the Milk Man himself.
Milk Man is on par with the critically lauded Reveille from 2002 and last year’s Apple O’, making it three straight years Deerhoof has produced an incredible album. I get the feeling that, with their brief album lengths and heavy release schedule, at their most prolific they could belt out another dozen or so songs every six months. For most bands to attempt this would be like bringing sand to the beach, but no one’s complaining here. Sometimes it’s best to be impatient.