Dan Deacon, ‘America’ – Album Review
If you’ve had the pleasure of seeing Dan Deacon live, you may think you know what to expect: audience participation, stroboscopic lights, human tunnels and a general sense of psychedelic shenanigans. In other words, Dan doesn't seem like the sort of guy that would take himself too seriously. Yet behind the controlled insanity over which the Baltimore-native presides, there have been signs that Deacon has more "serious" aspirations as a musician and artist.
In 2011, Deacon scored Francis Ford Coppola’s little-seen art house film 'Twixt,' and, last spring, played Carnegie Hall with nary a glowing green skull in sight. In interviews, Deacon has been quick to point to his work with classical composers, and he discusses his arrangements with the precise language of a musical theorist.
His third album, the austerely titled 'America,' is the culmination of these ambitions -- a non-ironic exploration of Deacon’s homeland that, like everything he has released before, asks to be embraced with wide eyes and an open heart.
If you're worried that Deacon's interest in classical tropes has dampened his more spasmodic leanings, then opening track 'Guilford Avenue Bridge' should quell your fears. The song builds from a sustained drone that rises into a frenetic explosion as untamed as anything on 2009's 'Bromst.' In fact, much of the first half of 'America' is filled with songs that longtime Deacon fans will immediately find appealing. 'True Thrush' uses loops and clipped vocals to create a technicolor ride with Deacon's surprisingly emotive vocals at the forefront, while 'Lots' is punk rock filtered through abrasive synths that you could imagine a crowd of LSD-dosed muppets moshing to. When Deacon covered Butthole Surfers last year for the 10-year anniversary of Michael Azerrad's 'Our Band Could Be Your Life,' it was with same fuzzed-out rhythmic intensity of 'Crash Jam.'
Of all the songs on the album's first half, 'Pretty Boy' is the biggest departure for Deacon. Less jumbled and glitchy than elsewhere on the LP, the track is a relatively staid travelogue through various sonic ideas. It's clear that Deacon loves the sound of live instrumentation, and listening to 'Pretty Boy,' you can almost see him fawning over each new sound as he lovingly pulls them from his pocket.
So what then of the weighty title of 'America'? While the album's lyrics remain mostly obscured, the suite of songs that end the record points toward Deacon's loftier aims. Labeled 'USA: 1-IV,' with subtitles like 'The Great American Desert' and 'Is a Monster,' Deacon lets these tracks stretch and build, playing with one or two ideas over their runtime. 'Rail' could soundtrack a train ride across the prairies, while 'The Great America Desert' lumbers until it reaches melodic heights reminiscent of F--- Buttons songs like 'Olympians.'
The album ends on a cathartic high-note with the epic sounds of 'Manifest,' but as the buzzing synths fade it's easy to wonder if 'America' truly requires the conceptual anchor that Deacon has saddled it with. That's a small quibble, though, and may well have been solved had Deacon simply chosen a different title. This is life-affirming music, acutely fussed over, that wears its ambition on its sleeve. Who could have guessed that a man who plays live with an iPod taped to a plastic banana would have made one of the most earnest pop albums of the year.