Dan Deacon holds a warped funhouse mirror up to his inner electronic composer. Don't worry, he hasn't matured. Rather, he's evolved.
A few months ago, I stood in line outside of the Hirshhorn Museum of Art in Washington, DC for an hour or two, in order to gain entrance to the latest installment of the institution's wildly popular "After Hours" series of events. The main draw that evening was Dan Deacon, who would bring his absurdly egalitarian live show to the museum's outdoor plaza. For once, the art world socialites and dilettantes were outnumbered by music fans, many of whom looked like they were barely old enough to get in. They had come to see Dan Deacon, if not so much to hear him. They had come to join the cause of the hipster pied piper, for an excuse to wear garish neon clothes, to be incited to run laps around the museum's concrete fountain (at least, until security finally stepped in and put a stop to all that). They had come, it seemed, more for Dan Deacon the phenomenon than for Dan Deacon the musician. The show was as manic, energetic and fun as any other set I have seen Deacon play. Yet, somehow, it all felt a little disheartening.
Herein lies the challenge that Dan Deacon faces. The mythos that surrounds him now threatens to overshadow his musical output, a fact that Deacon seems acutely aware of. In becoming the figurehead for Baltimore's musical revival, Deacon has come to embody the accoutrements of the Wham City scene: all-night parties in abandoned buildings, ironically worn DayGlo clothing, unabashedly postmodern psychedelia, a casual lack of self-awareness. He's managed to draw national attention to his hometown music scene -- but in so doing, he's become a caricature, a court jester for the indie rock set.
Dan Deacon needs a reboot, at least if he hopes to outlive his own trendiness. He needs to produce an artistic statement of purpose that points to where he's going, that demonstrates what's he capable of. In short, he needs to reframe the conversation that surrounds him, by drawing attention away from the spectacle and toward the substance of his work.
Bromst, it seems, is Deacon's attempt to do all of this, to cement his position as an artist worth taking seriously without completely alienating his existing fan base. For months, we've heard Deacon describe his latest opus using adjectives like "mature", "organic", and "dark" (the last of which became a source of consternation for him when it reverberated loudly in the rock crit echo chamber). Of course, no one's quite sure what those words mean to Deacon, especially given the limited emotional range explored on his breakthrough album, 2007's Spiderman of the Rings.
It seems to me that there are two important questions we must ask when evaluating Bromst. Is this the album that Dan Deacon needs? And is this the album that Dan Deacon's fans want? As it turns out, the answer to the first question is a resounding "yes". The answer to the second question, however, proves far more elusive.
"Build Voice", the opening track, makes many of the album's aims clear from the get-go. The first sound we hear is a distant buzz -- a sound too faint to process. As it gets closer, the buzz sounds something like a cloud of insects flapping their wings in robotic unison. We then hear a voice echoing in the distance. No, it's not a voice pitch-shifted to absurd heights ("chipmunk vocals", as some have taken to calling them). Rather, it's an unadorned, plain, even unremarkable voice. As the voice comes into focus it finally clicks: we're hearing Dan Deacon's natural singing voice.
As he sings, the song's puzzle pieces start to fall into place. Synth notes cascade like an overwound jack-in-the-box. A slow, steady drumbeat sets the pace. A piano line provides a steady melodic anchor. At this point, for lack of a better term, the song's structure feels surprisingly traditional. Slowly, however, the tempo starts to creep up. The drums get louder. Deacon coos. The drums get even louder. You've heard this one before. As the song spirals out of control, you steel yourself, ready for it all to fly off the rails.
Yet somehow, it never does.
Instead, the song unexpectedly cuts to a piano coda. As Deacon tickles the keys excitedly, we can't help but feel that this stability won't last -- this is just a momentary detour from the crescendo, right? Sure enough, the other tracks soon return. But before the breakneck tempo reaches its logical conclusion, the song abruptly ends. "Build Voice", as it turns out, is the album's aspirational mission statement. All build and no release, it finds Deacon playing with the listener's expectations, dangling a carrot that never quite comes within reach.
Well, maybe not "never". "Red F" is a delightful mess of a song. It opens with an atonal buzz that Deacon builds upon, layering bouncy Casio lines and keyboard preset drumbeats atop until we can no longer hear the drone. Deacon sings in his natural (albeit distorted) voice, yes, but otherwise, the song is completely fucking bonkers. Noise breakdowns punctuate the track every minute or so, disorienting the listener at every turn like a house of mirrors. Still, underneath it all, there's a melodic thread worth following, not to mention quite a bit of low-end -- something previously absent from most of Deacon's work.
Just before hitting the two-minute mark, we're treated to a familiar Deacon staple: the vocoderized "robot voice". Deacon yells in the background, trying to either drown out or harmonize with the robot. Then, without warning, it all falls apart. The song plunges into a coda of buzzes and warped synth tones, sounding like a writhing pile of pixilated worms. You can almost hear the neon-clad kids losing their shit in the distance.
"Paddling Ghost" is similarly dense, overflowing with processed blips and beeps and featuring a few more rewards for patient listeners (chipmunk vocals!). "Snookered", however, is an entirely different affair. Opening with a delicate, electronic lullaby that recalls early Lullatone, it slowly folds in echoing voices, organ-like synth chords and drums. After two minutes, Deacon emerges, or rather, a chorus of Dan Deacons emerges. For the first time, we can hear Deacon's voice clearly enough to make out his words: "Been wrong so many times before / But never quite like this". As the track progresses, he continues to pile on more keyboards, until, at its apex, the song sounds like a battery-powered symphony. Ringing glockenspiel notes rain down from above. A chopped-up voice bounces off of the walls. The song eventually becomes so overstuffed, it feels like a piñata, ready to spew candy at the first sign of a direct hit. But then, just shy of the seven-minute mark, it all falls away, returning to the original lullaby. As the glockenspiel notes slowly trend upward, they're joined by marimba, leading us into "Of the Mountains". "Surprise Stefani", the instrumental track that follows, also puts Deacon's glockenspiel and marimba to good use, creating a thick haze of bright tones. You might say that the song sounds a bit like Sigur Rós, albeit happier.
As the euphoria of "Surprise Stefani" wears off, "Wet Wings", the album's most unapologetically experimental composition, starts to build. Initially, we hear a female voice, chanting musically in an unfamiliar language. As the track progresses, Deacon layers the voice atop itself, producing a heavily delayed round robin, of sorts. The end result is a swirling, ethereal chapel of sound -- a singular, haunting voice that reaches with all its might toward the heavens. Needless to say, the song is both arrestingly beautiful and totally unlike anything Deacon has ever produced.
As if to reward us for sitting through the three minutes of "Wet Wings" with a straight face, Deacon immediately produces "Woof Woof", the album's wackiest track. All warped synth tones, electronic barking, slide whistles and chipmunk choruses, the song is undeniably amusing. Still, after "Wet Wings", it can't help but feel like a bit of a cop out.
This underlying tension, between the old, wacky Dan Deacon and the new, more serious Dan Deacon, ultimately comes to define Bromst. Sure, Bromst is a terrific album -- it largely builds on Spiderman of the Rings, injecting Deacon's manic compositions with a depth and complexity that challenge lazy readings of his work. However, it still feels more like a transition piece than a destination. Even as he stretches out his compositions to their breaking points, Deacon baits the listener with bits and pieces from his sonic past. It's as if he's testing his fans, to see how far down the rabbit hole they'll follow him.
My guess is that Bromst is meant to serve as a bridge, allowing Deacon to evolve from a keyboard-toting goofball into a "serious" electronic composer. And for that reason, the release, for all it's charms, only serves to whet my appetite for Deacon's next album. Will Bromst's successor find Deacon abandoning all vestiges of his previous sound and image, venturing soberly into completely uncharted territory? It might. Or it might mark his return to writing tongue-in-cheek numbers like "Totally Boner Eat Shit". That's the thing with Dan Deacon: trying to predict what he's going to do next is, well, downright wacky.