Sorry, but Dan Deacon is not your own private Zappa.
Press everywhere wants to paint Deacon as the Wham City weirdo who decided to grow up, having transcended the novelty of “Drinking Out of Cups” to become a serious musician, distracting people with his childlike sense of whimsy with album titles like Spiderman of the Rings while creating immaculately-constructed pop songs that hit your brain’s pleasure center time and time again. Deacon’s music isn’t designed to convince you that he’s the smartest boy at the pop music academy, nor is it mere novelty ear candy (even if it’s often consumed as such). Deacon is laboring under the idea that something as fundamental as pop music can unite and bring people together just as it was meant to, as folks of all ages and creeds can get on down to just one killer jam, whether it be goofy, straight-faced, or dripping with utter neon nonsense.
In a 2009 profile about the Wham City collective that ran on PopMatters, musician Kevin O’Meara talked about how “many people have actually rejected the word ‘scene’ in favor of ‘community.’ ‘Scene’ connotates impermanence, a desire to be aesthetically homogenous, and a lack of genuine feeling or intent; whereas ‘community’ suggest permanence, diversity, and love.'” For years, Deacon’s party-ready live-shows have truly brought fans into a community experience, encouraging excessive amounts of dancing even as his numerous vocal filters hide some stinging couplets about disappointment, a lack of identity, and mortality. “Feel like I’m all flesh and no bone”. he notes at the tail end of America, his last major full-length. “I’m not the shapes that I’m shown / I hope I get it right”.
So when Gliss Riffer opens up with the stuttered tabla and mountainous synths of lead single “Feel the Lightning”, we are thrust fully into his harmonic world of joyous misery, his knack for a feel-good pop-hook undercut by his varying sets of pitch-shifted vocals describing visions of death and something vaguely apocalyptic, even as he tacks on a little grace note at the end:
Can you feel the lightning covering your skin?
It’s the nightmare, ‘cos you’re on fire
You went your whole life waiting for this moment to begin
And now it’s over, but you’re not tired
Yet even Deacon can’t fully give in to visions too damning. At one point he describes “The first time they heard the song from Tom Petty / The one where Johnny Depp plays the rebel named Eddie / The sky was the limit / And then it came crashing down”, a gloriously long-winded way to reference Petty’s “Into the Great Wide Open” in a verse about a world where humans may or may not be living. His obsession with a populationless planet has been long-running theme of his (see: Spiderman of the Rings‘ “Wham City”), and on Gliss Riffer‘s “When I Was Done Dying”, he finds joy in the absurdity of all his adventures beyond this life, describing how he would fall asleep softly at “the edge of a cave / But I should’ve gone deeper / But I’m not so brave”, before being ripped into the heavens and then smacked down again, albeit in humorous fashion (“My skin did explode / Leaving only my shirt”). The imagery gets more surreal as it presses on, but the dramatic context that it’s presented in, with chopped-up vocal samples and waves of synths swinging from one major chord to the next, imbues it with a rare sort of profundity wherein all the meaning to be derived out of it depends solely on the listener. Some may find the song very deep; others may just revel in the absurdity of it all. Either way, Deacon doesn’t seem to care too much, so long as you get something out of it.
Yet for all instances of fatalistic dance-pop that will ultimately define Gliss Riffer in the years that follow, the rest of the album feels somewhat shy about its intentions, even if its songs are downright determined to mean something. “Take it to the Max” is a near eight-minute epic that builds upon its syncopated rubber beat to reach new levels of cathartic release, a new element being added every 60 seconds or so, creating deft sense of rising action until it explodes into glitch-pop madness near the six-minute mark, undercutting its momentum before simply fizzling out in admittedly-pretty fashion. “Sheathed Wings”, meanwhile, builds on a sample that feels straight out of the breakdown on Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” to deliver another surrealism diatribe about the sky turning into sand that, because of its distinct lack of rising action, doesn’t have the same emotive power as the songs its sandwiched between (“Feel the Lighting” and “When I Was Done Dying”).
While “Meme Generator” does emit a specific lo-fi charm that helps keep the album’s tempo fluxuation in check, and “Mind On Fire” is by far the strongest instrumental of the bunch, none of this can shake the feeling that Gliss Riffer, despite its populist pleasures and enigmatic lyrical themes, wants to be something so much greater than it is. Deacon has built upon the lessons learned from America and his excellent 2009 set Bromst to create pop music that is far removed from the viral novelties that defined him in the past, but he is still remarkably hesitant to show us his heart, only offering glimpses of insight while still doing all the can to keep the party going at the right BPM. Gliss Riffer is by far his most successful (and, incidentally, most accessible) full-length, but it’s just shy of being a masterpiece. His constant need to mask his deeper thoughts and intentions prevents the album from emitting the warmth we know it is capable of.
No, Dan Deacon is not your own private Zappa, but at this rate, he never will be, because he’s discovered that he’s the first-ever Dan Deacon, and as Gliss Riffer proves, his greatest wow-moments have yet to come.