America, this one’s for you

Dan Deacon releases first album in four years, and it’s a doozy

If this is the first time you’ve ever heard the name Dan Deacon, then I implore you to stop reading immediately and familiarize yourself. Not for the sake of getting you, the reader, up to speed; no, because the man’s music should be celebrated by everyone with ears.

Dan Deacon releases first album in four years, and it’s a doozy

If this is the first time you’ve ever heard the name Dan Deacon, then I implore you to stop reading immediately and familiarize yourself. Not for the sake of getting you, the reader, up to speed; no, because the man’s music should be celebrated by everyone with ears.

COURTESY OF Domino records

DAN DEACON returns with his new electronic opus, America.

Deacon’s catalog is very special because it begs to be enjoyed backward—from his latest music to his earliest works. Bromst (2009) is likely his most accessible work, recorded with a live ensemble of traditional instruments, while some of his earlier work, including “A Green Cobra is Awesome vs. the Sun” (2002), should be reserved for only the most dedicated Deacon enthusiasts.
“Cobra” is a 40-plus-minute sinusoidal drone designed for a soundproof room and expensive speakers—the result is really more of a physics experiment, as the sounds appear to rotate around the user rapidly. It’s not for everyone, though I love it, but that’s for a different, never-gonna-happen review.

One can’t speak about Deacon without mentioning his background. The man holds master’s degrees in both electro-acoustic and computer composition from State University of New York’s Purchase College. He’s also a prolific composer, and a decorated one at that: Nearly every piece he’s composed and performed has been universally hailed by critics “Ghostbuster Cook: Origin of the Riddler” was called one of the top 10 classical pieces of 2011 by New York Magazine.

Deacon’s sound is wildly varied—only if you’ve heard them all can you begin to affix a label to the man. If Meetle Mice was your only foray into Deacon’s work, your description of his sound would differ greatly from someone who’s only heard Spiderman of the Rings.

As resident Dan Deacon authority, I can safely say that the common theme is hyperactive electricity and childlike whimsy. Occasionally, Deacon ventures into maturity—and Bromst certainly demonstrated that—but what about his newest album, America?

Since Bromst was released, Deacon’s had four years, and in that time he’s composed critically celebrated classical pieces. It makes sense that he would borrow some classical bravado for America. And he does—on half the record.

Deacon’s ambitious America serves a dual purpose. The first half seems like an appropriate, logical follow-up to 2007’s Spiderman of the Rings, while the latter half, in all its classically composed glory, seems more of a follow-up to Bromst. America definitely seems like Deacon created a record for the fans, since Bromst was so markedly different from Spiderman. Longtime Deacon devotees finally get continuations of two distinct Deacon eras.

But since they’re two mostly unique musical realms, do they belong on the same record?

Yes, yes they do.

It is unsurprising that an accomplished composer could find a way to gel two different branches of schizophrenic electronic music, and Deacon finds a way. The track are even titled classically—the last four tracks are prefaced with “USA” and a colon to denote a completely separate movement.

However, the transition from the last track on the Spiderman side to the Bromst side isn’t as smooth as it could be; perhaps the record was sequenced for vinyl. But enough about that, you say; how are the songs? They’re really good.

Spirits fell slightly, even among Deacon fanatics, when he self-leaked “True Thrush,” a mild, pop-oriented song that is decidedly short on Deacon’s electronic wizardry. If upon hearing “True Thrush,” you were among the disappointed fans, let your mind be at ease.

Not only are all the other tracks on America incredible, “True Thrush” actually works
sandwiched between “Guilford Avenue Bridge” and “Lots.” The power of the composer is on full display with the track arrangement.

Much of the first half of America sounds like Deacon’s more sophisticated cuts from Spiderman, like “Wham City” and “Crystal Cat.” Maturity is one of the underlying themes of the album, and it feels good. Though they’re great from time to time, and I’m sure Deacon will still play both live, you’ll find no sophomoric tracks like “Snake Mistakes” or “Woof Woof” here.

Instead, you’ll experience new, more seasoned cuts, such as “Lots,” which sounds like Spiderman’s “Crystal Cat” soaked in Valium, and the impossibly dense and punishing “Crash Jam.” If there’s one place that Deacon excels, it’s his frenetic live show, and it’s safe to say that every slice of America would be an absolute blast.

One appropriately named cut is “Prettyboy”; the song is just beautiful. Deacon’s idea of beauty usually takes extreme liberties with subjectivism, but his 2012 vision of the concept is universal.

As for the “USA” quadrilogy, the first track, “USA: Is a Monster” is apt if nothing else. After the mood-setting, soulful arrangement in the beginning, the track takes a sudden turn. The remainder is about as chewy as Deacon’s music has ever been, with his playful vocals poking through the minuscule gaps left in the impenetrable instrumentals.

Later on in “USA: The Great American Desert,” you’ll come across some vocals that sound different—like falsetto, almost—and they float just on top of Deacon’s breathlessly inspiring “flying through space” shimmer-and-percussion feast.

If Deacon hadn’t already said that America is a tribute to his own country, the brass and strings near the end of “USA: Rail” would definitely paint the picture. It’s about as soulful as Deacon has ever gotten—right up there with the deceptively megaton-powerful lyrics of “Wham City.”

Dan Deacon
Domino Records

5 stars

Here, on “Rail,” Deacon manages to express his love for the country that birthed him with a magical array of traditional American instruments. The buildup continues until the last track, “USA: Manifest,” smashes it to pieces with an electrified hammer. “Manifest” should be taught in music classes as an example of how to finish an album—it’s a fantastic choice for a closer. It’s heavy, tight, lighthearted and, even to the final seconds, finishes flawlessly.

Never mind that I’m a total Deacon fanboy; I’ve been reviewing albums for a long time and it’s easy to set aside my own personal biases. I can say with complete impartiality that America begs to be heard by everyone. It’s a wonderfully crafted piece of music that deserves to be spread throughout networks, from loved one to loved one, across generational gaps. Just keep an open mind—this is for America.