That spastic weirdo knob twiddler has made an unapologetically earnest album about the state of America's psychic and physical landscape. It's not wacky, it's not pretensious, and it'll blow you away.
Dan Deacon has always been a fundamentally American artist, although the reason for that has perhaps shifted over the years. At the beginning of his musical career, Deacon’s America was the one cast the blueprint for postmodernism, the melting pot of cultures and traditions stewed together to create one odd compound function- America the land of the free, land where our blundered miswirings and social defects are proudly displayed as an act of pride. His references points were American, his crude humor was American, and his Horatio-Alger like grassroots audience-building was American. An early EP invented the neologism “twacky”, a combination of wacky and tacky, that some thought seemed to embody Deacon to a T.
Deacon was branded pretty early on as an outsider. Though he came from an artsy background studying electronic composition at SUNY Purchase, he was generally thought by many to be something of a puerile novelty act, a lovable eccentric to troll out onto those unsuspecting kids eager for LOLZ and dancing.
His live act seemed to be at times an act of regression closer to lo-fi punk than conceptual composition or the performance art an early press bio touted. His spastic early live performances included goofy stand-up shtick banter between songs. He traded in pop culture iconography, imagining a world where Woody Woodpecker, Captain Crunch, Porky Pig, and (Pink) Batman were as interfacable as any passerby. An early piece included the whole of Aerosmith’s Permanent Vacation layered upon itself. Hopping up and down behind a barrage of sequencers and pedals, he came across a kid tinkering with his toys, putting on a magic show for his friends, but actually pulling off a couple incredible feats in the course of a set. His earliest DIY albums on microindie Standard Oil Records were full of Tourette’s-like titles like “Totally Boner Eat Shit”, “I Have AIDS”, and the (sincerely) lovely “My Own Face is F Word”. No one would claim Deacon was short on imagination, but to put forth that the central thesis was anything but unadulterated fun would be ludicrous.
I started following Deacon back in 2003 when he was playing tiny venues like the Tuscan Café in Warwick, NY. Back then, he was billed as a noise artist and was often a brilliant outlier amidst the likes of his humorless cacophonous peers (of which I admit to being among), though his sets fused to the genre of noise better than one might expect. Despite his junk machine aesthetic, the one that made him the unlikely bedfellow of noise community and the one mode that has stayed consistent since this period, Deacon always had a bit of a populist streak in him. In those early days, his best known (and most requested) piece was a demonstration-sound piece called “Pizza Horse”, a song whose batshit lyrics made about as much sense as that title might suggest and whose dedicated absurdism inspired unlikely singalong sessions and communal dance routines.
At that time, Deacon was putting on top notch shows, but had failed to produce an album that delivered on the promise of his live presence. Taking Our Band is Your Life as his bible, Deacon blazed across the American landscape crashing on couches and playing in basements building up his fanbase from the ground up. Simultaneously, he become something of an early YouTube celebrity for two videos; his outlandish performance on the morning show of NBC’s Savannah affiliate and “Drinking Out of Cups”, an early stream of consciousness spoken word rant brought to life by an animation by Sifl and Olly creator Liam Lynch. Though these two clips raised his profile, they may have permanently cemented the image of Deacon as All American goon. By the time Spiderman of the Rings, an album finally worthy of Deacon’s mettle, dropped, he was already known as an effective peddler of cheap synth smut caked in the kind of early childhood fetish that would slowly reveal itself to be on the principal concerns of the post-noise diaspora and the late naughts indie regalia.
Though Spiderman got some rave reviews, few were willing to concede that the songs shone brighter than the shtick. This magazine even referred to him as a “hipster pied piper” and a “court jester for the indie rock set”. It has been a struggle to overcome this ever since. The first sincere attempt was sophomore album Bromst, a masterful album or gorgeous euphoric highs and epic rainbow splendor apparently about how Monsanto was causing the end of the world, or something like that.
Later, he became involved in forays into the classical world, composing a piece performed at Carnegie Hall, conducting a much lauded ensemble piece in keeping with his sensibilities entitled “Ghostbuster Cook: Origin of the Riddler”, and even scoring the next Francis Ford Coppola film Twixt. Concurrently, Deacon played a gig for Occupy Wall Street, leading a riveted hoard of activists through an inspired interpretive dance session.
His Occupy tactics showcased the way in which Deacon as ringleader, “hipster pied piper” if you will, at some point transformed from an onanistic knob twiddler to a community leader, able to rally, build, and inspire mass group participation. What’s more, placed against the stale likes of Tom Morrello’s lame folk retread and Immortal Technique’s deterministic and didactic hip hop on the same Occupy stage, it was only Deacon’s elated and luminescent psychedelia that sounded like the unlikely future path forward.
So, here we arrive at America and while it’s unclear what the punters expecting twacky uncle Dan will think, this is his opus, a grand statement made without a trace of irony or shit-eating grin. Indeed, the LP is, for better or worse, about the state of America and hence is painted in a fairly broad scope. But while the album hints at the epic grandeur of an album like Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, America, at a scant 43 minutes and tempered in measured stripes, avoids the bloat of other concept albums by not trying to encompass all of America in cylindrical vinyl. The perspective here is Deacon’s alone.
Despite his ties to the Occupy movement and his vegetable oil powered tour van, Deacon hasn’t penned a diatribe against greedy bankers and bloodthirsty oil barons. Instead, he focuses on the landscape, the one encountered during his relentless touring regimen. This is a road album, propelled along by galvanic rhythms from the drum circle pounding of opener “Guilford Avenue Bridge” to the motorik stomp of “Crash Jam”. This is the same percussive vivacity that will find his audiences continuing to thrash and hurtle themselves about, but on America, the rhythm section is more singularly directional and less capable of getting sidelined into explosions of primal release.
Side B pushes further with the 20-plus-minute “USA”, which is like a transatlantic journey across the great divide, bridging the epic beauty of the natural world from the dystopian ruin of its unraveling in the course of its wayfaring. “I see the hillsides / Burning in flames / Everything’s gray / Nothing remains of / Places I loved / Nothing’s green Nothing / Grows / Everything burned / Everything was," Deacon sings on the opening chapter of the piece “USA I: Is a Monster”, looking out at a world that initially seems beyond repair.
At the reverse polarity is the utterly gorgeous “USA III: Rail”, a piece whose mellifluent melody is so bare-faced simple and clear that its structure contends again Terry Riley’s “A Rainbow in Curved Air” or Kraftwerk’s Ralf and Florian in the pantheon of subdued electronic minimalism. Flutes, bells, glockenspiel, horns, strings, and various other instruments rapidly interchange primary and secondary roles, exchanging emphasis like a flock singing together, like a community being built out of thin air.
In fact, Deacon did pull together a community of sorts for this album. A vast ensemble of musicians for this extended piece, including 22 musicians from the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University in his hometown of Baltimore appear on the four parts of “USA”, an act which shrieks of pretension. Yet, nothing on America feels forced, and notably, Deacon never loses that underlying essence of fun that has followed him throughout his career. Whereas minted rock messiahs enlist the orchestra pit to tier pointless layers of complexity on their tunes, Deacon seems to be conducting his players to all pull in the same direction, forming something that sounds like a sonic onomatopoeia of a passing locomotive.
It’s a testament to Deacon’s restraint (you heard me) that he can write intimate and complex music that still gets branded minimalist. Deacon relies on simple chord changes to motor his mechanics, but the notes themselves contain all the grime and rust, the spark plugs and fried currents that he can cram into them. The gritty texture of the synth bass on tracks like “Guilford Avenue Bridge” and “Crash Jam” in particular are nasty and snarled, industrial filth that simultaneously mimes the devastated vista and the mechanisms that brought it down.
Likewise affected as per usual are Deacon’s vocals. Deacon’s voice has always been an extension of the music’s electronically wired central nervous system, particularly on the dense, intense fever dreams of Bromst. Here is no exception, but you may be surprised how silicon smooth or tantrically zen he sounds blending into the psychotropic dawn of “Crash Jam” or the scrambled twilight of “USA III: The Great American Desert” respectively.
If the finale of “USA” in part “IV: Manifest” does not feels as ecstatically celebratory as Deacon is wont to get on prior tracks like “Of the Mountains”, it’s because the entire trip is poised to sound incomplete. The final lyrics on an album filled with desperation, self-doubt, and strangely luminescent glimmers of hope are “Things that I love fade out past my view/ The times are racing now I’m just glad I spent them with you/ Feel like I’m all flesh and no bone/ I’m not the shapes that I’m shown/ I hope I get it right”.
This uncertainty at being “all flesh and no bone” and unclear on what shape the future will take is why America is not about the greedy bankers and the oil barons. It’s not about the way corporatism and war are deeply embedded into the fabric of our history. “No past / No Sense/ Brave Days/ Ahead," Deacon charges on “Lots”, fist practically pumping in the air in defiance of the impulses of Retromania that no one could ever accuse Deacon of subscribing to.
America is about the start of something. It’s not America the failed state or USA the monster. It’s about America the young, moving past its puerile stage into a richer terrain, thinking beyond the self and starting to pull in the same direction, reconsidering ideas branded too outsider, too hip, or too idealistic to take seriously, and conceding that we are only at the beginning of this grand experiment in order to form a more perfect union. Suffice it to say, if the guy who made “Totally Boner Eat Shit” can grow up, maybe America can too.