I’ve always found it unfair to say that a certain artist is “depressing.” Sure, the work might come from a depressed place but those songs will inevitably impart a whole range of emotions onto the listener. Those that understand the artist’s plight might feel comforted. Others will likely find something beautiful in the way the stories are told. However, that frilly analysis I have just made goes right out the window whenever I listen to Dan Deacon. His opuses of celebration make me think “damn, why have I spent so much time listening to a bunch of sad sacks lightly strum their guitars.” Eventually that feeling subsides, but for the time that I am locked into Deacon’s exuberant world I am reviled by the thought of listening to an Elliot Smith song. Such is the draw of Deacon’s primal energy – an energy that defined his first major release, Spiderman of the Rings, and has since become one aspect of an increasingly refined artist.
For anyone that has seen his live show, refined might seem like the wrong word for Dan Deacon. His concerts are deafening, fascinating, life-affirming explosions of energy. He attempts to involve everyone in the process (sometimes by coercion) and one can’t help but give in to the joy of the mob. However, this live persona may not be an exact reflection of who Deacon is. Here is what he said in a recent interview: “After I started playing larger shows, I noticed people were coming fucked up, like, on ecstasy. It made me feel like shit that I was enabling this culture that I wanted nothing to do with.” Later in the interview he is asked if he has matured at all since the release of Spiderman and he says “I would fucking hope so.” Deacon has turned away from the party-in-an-abandoned-building atmosphere that shaped his earlier work and is now focusing more directly on his craft. Embracing his training in classical music, Deacon has recently composed music for symphonies, committed to scoring a Francis Ford Coppola film, and, of course, made America, his most accomplished album yet.
America can effectively be split into its first half, which is more pop-oriented tracks, and its second half, a sprawling four part series entitled USA. Some might question whether the two parts make for a coherent album. To answer that, it is best to examine each half on its own and then look at whether they belong on the same release. The first five tracks on America are a return to the wonderful world that was last revealed to us by Bromst. Heavily modulated synths and pummeling drum rhythms give way to intricately laced arpeggios and unexpected serenity. Deacon’s arrangements can stop on a dime and morph into something completely new and enticing. Take “Guillford Avenue Bridge,” the first song on the record. It only takes about thirty seconds of dissonant screeching before the drums (now engineered to sound distinctly live) usher in the sonic onslaught. Layers of synths wash over one another, barreling into oblivion; however, no sooner than the mayhem begins is it interrupted by a hypnotic, rhythmically-complex interlude. This delicate soundscape slowly edges toward a moment of bliss just before it careens gloriously back into an explosive wall of sound. And things only get more interesting from there.
“True Thrush” keeps the tradition of every Dan Deacon record, whereby one song in particular is just impossibly catchy. Bromst had “Snookered” and Spiders had “Wham City.” “True Thrush” might not be “Wham City” caliber but it is undeniably infectious. A bubbly bass line grounds a chorus of wispy keys, hand claps, and dreamlike vocals. The track is another example of how Deacon is adept at masking strong fundamental melodies with a sense of haphazardness. With all of its disparate elements the track could easily be a shambles but it is wound around a taut melodic core that keeps everything aimed in the right direction. This is true of all the first three songs, which collectively form a trio of blistering party tunes. These tracks, along with “Crash Jam,” are the kind of twisted, joyous pop tunes that makes Deacon so beloved; but it is the tone set by “Prettyboy” and the latter half of the album that ultimately sets America apart.
USA heavily incorporates drums and synths but it is orchestral in nature. Acoustic instruments are central to the tone of the piece and segments repeat each other during different movements as they would in a classical work. However, USA is first and foremost a Dan Deacon creation. It doesn’t get bogged down by trying to be overly traditional; instead, USA takes the compelling elements of orchestral composition (e.g. building on a central theme, plotting the interaction of every instrument) and transports them into Deacon’s world of drones and celebration. Part I, entitled “Is a Monster,” opens with a string arrangement that slowly builds over the course of a minute. The strings then drop out entirely and a grating synth takes their place. Deacon’s voice hovers celestially in the background. Layers of sound pound on top of one another eventually surging toward a crescendo. Then the layers peel away. The initial string arrangement is reprised along with squeaky synth modulation and a primal drum beat. It makes for an epic moment, and it is one that returns in even grander fashion at the end of “Manifest.”
Deacon has said that USA is meant to reflect the experience of traveling through America. That quiet journey that shows the cities along with the forgotten places, the striking mountains along with the empty fields. The four parts of the series have an overlapping foundation but they also are a study in change. “The Great American Desert” is chaotic and diverse while “Rail,” with its entirely acoustic composition, evokes a more serene landscape. The shift from “Rail” to “Manifest,” in particular, seems to capture the fundamental beauty that Deacon finds in America. One can be alone on a train watching the land unfold when the destination starts to come into view. The end of “Rail” captures that energy and “Manifest” revolves around that peculiar urban experience one has once the train has moved on. Like Deacon says, it is “like when the city you’ve seen growing in the distance is finally there.” I find it refreshing that an outspoken artist who is critical of his country can also be forthright about the fact that there are beautiful things about America, even if those things are sometimes hard to find.
One might ask why Deacon decided to combine USA with his more pop-oriented work. On paper it is a fair question; but after a week with the album the disconnect between the two sections becomes obsolete. USA does exactly what the rest of America does, but it does it on a larger scale. The arrangements are built to create moments of bliss, tension, confusion, and release. The rhythms and synth lines are intricately crafted and seamlessly engineered. Deacon’s voice swirls through the instruments like a ghost that is still holding onto his optimism. And, ultimately, all of America is a full-throated embrace of life, and whatever that life may hold. America is not as joyous as Spiderman of the Rings or as eclectic as Bromst, but it is ultimately more affecting; and it seems to be most accurate reflection yet of who Dan Deacon really is. [A-]