Dan Deacon Dan DeaconAmerica
There have been three stages in Dan Deacon’s musical career leading to the definitive crystallisation of his ambition here. First, the tireless blender: “Spiderman Of The Rings” (Carpark, 2007), the origin of his boom on the underground, a crazy, confused bunch of samples and melodies that put the encyclopaedic pop of Girl Talk and Beach Boys-type psychedelics onto the same plane, with the density of a black hole. It was an overloaded album that betrayed his intention of crossing popular songs with the experimental avant-garde. Then came the second stage, the build-up: “Bromst” (Carpark, 2009) was his attempt to put all of his influences and intentions in their place to show that he wasn’t only a bulimic feeding from crossing styles to later vomit them out, but rather a creator with a balanced diet, just with his plates filled to the brim. His last title on Carpark was another baroque symphony that shored up his technique as a songwriter, except that it was overwhelmed by metastasised synths and bursts of saturated high notes. Now comes the third phase, coinciding with his switch to Domino, which is the era of fertilisation: “America” has gotten rid of a lot of dead weight; the songs shine, the baroque quality gently allows the greater influences to move into the foreground, and it carries inside it the idea of advancing, of creating a new order. Deacon hasn’t lost his ambition, but the most important thing is that he hasn’t lost his nose for creativity.
“America”, which might at first sound like a patriotic title, carries inside it the same poison as titles like “Born In The USA”: it is a cultural and moral reclaiming of the country, but in response to the social and economic decline of recent years. Dan Deacon hasn’t hidden when things have gone badly, he participated in Occupy Wall Street; he also approached this work as collaboration with musicians close to him and instrumentalists new to his orbit, in the hope that the coming together of ideas and efforts would lead to progress. Therefore, Deacon seems to call for a return to the other ‘America’ - more enterprising, more social, more sensitive - and he does so with a collection of compositions that hark back all at once to the musical history of the United States from the fifties to now, from rock’n’roll to academic minimalism, to techno accompanied by licks of ecstasy. It’s a titanic job - even an opinionated one, if it had fallen into other hands - and he takes it to its final consequences successfully. It is not only a victory: it is possibly his best album. Whether it surpasses “Bromst” or not will be debated, and here we will vote that it does.
What is up with “America”, aesthetically speaking? As if it were intended to be put out on vinyl (and listened to in that format, and not any other), the five first songs - the A-side – form a group that struggle to invent a new modernity for 21st-century pop. It’s followed by an ambitious suite, with four songs strung together and joined by the common title “USA”, which develops Dan Deacon’s avant-garde symphonic language (sort of like Animal Collective meets Aaron Copland). The suite is in the line of his latest works outside of the recording market, such as his soundtrack for Francis Ford Coppola’s “Twixt”, or his ensemble pieces “Ghostbuster Cook: Origin Of The Riddler” and “An Opal Toad With Obsidian Eyes”, from which he reclaims here a taste for dynamic, almost choral percussion. The first segment of “America” begins with a storm of drums and a labyrinth of arpeggios in “Guilford Avenue Bridge”, somewhere between a military march and Terry Riley’s bunches of repeated notes – with an injection of electric noise – giving way to a song filled with optimism, “True Thrush” (filled with odd sparks, which shine as a cross between a carefree hippy quality and psychedelic weightiness). “Lots” – with the volume raised to the point of distortion – is a sort of space-rock encore of the latter, like Spiritualized high on peyote. Then there is “Prettyboy”, another space piece that sounds like an extended version, with a romantic piano, of the intro to Orbital’s “Halcyon” (which is to say absolute joy), closing with the cacophonic glam of “Crash Jam”.
But the tour de force is in the four movements of the suite “ USA”, abounding with violins and xylophones, where Dan Deacon throws the rest of the album into a demonstration of his knowledge of avant-garde language. The first segment, “Is A Monster”, seems like a cover of Fuck Buttons – especially their more “Olympic” songs with a fanfare of trumpets and epic sounds – with (imaginary) orchestral arrangements by Philip Glass and an (also imaginary) vocal cameo from the brothers at Animal Collective. It must be something intrinsic in Baltimore, like the union of the three sides of a triangle. It ends up flowing into “The Great American Desert”, a title that evokes pieces like “Grand Canyon Suite” (by Ferde Grofé) but which has more the texture of maximalist pop with videogame effects. The third part, “Rail”, evokes the growth and expansion of the United States - the railway as the backbone of the nation - in the purest Steve Reich style. It boasts a clarinet, xylophone and a percussion loop that imitates the piece “Different Trains” (no coincidence there) until the music once again breaks away from its direct reference, grows into another fanfare of glorious happiness, and concludes with “Manifest”. This is like going back to the beginning, to the flood of noise, raging percussion and chaotic climax: it’s a circular album, thought out down to the millimetre, executed with daring. It’s Dan Deacon pounding a fist on the table to tell us that he’s had enough of being treated like a freak. From now on, he is to be treated like one of the greatest living American composers.