Dan Deacon creates diverse musical soundscape in ‘America’
Music Review | 4.5 out of 5 stars
Published: Tuesday, September 4, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, September 4, 2012 07:09
It’s hardly surprising that an artist as omnivorous and broadly talented as Dan Deacon would end up tackling huge topics with his work. His latest album, simply titled “America,” is a crackling, rich ode to the varied geographies and political leanings of the United States.
All of Deacon’s skills as an instrumentalist, composer, engineer and electronic musician are on full display in “America,” proving his reach rarely exceeds his grasp. Though there are moments when the album gets bogged down by its sheer ambition and Deacon’s penchant for dense, multilayered arrangements, the album makes for some of the most thought-provoking music of the year.
More so than any previous Dan Deacon record, “America” catalogues the artist’s numerous musical passions. Deacon’s ventures as a curious electronic dabbler and a composer of concert music are brought into full harmony. Abrasive, wailing synthesizers comingle with quirky string arrangements and playful marimba lines. Propulsive drumming and delicate glockenspiel trade off with gusto. “America” brings so much to the table that it takes several listens to parse Deacon’s challenging but always compelling tracks.
The album opens with a full display of force. “Guilford Avenue Bridge” greets the listener with throbbing, grating sound waves that shift and morph as Deacon processes them through various effects. Heavily layered drums quickly join the fray to give the track a manic groove. Just as all these rhythms and percussion build to a frenzied climax, Deacon wisely reduces them, leaving the listener with a few cathartic synth pads and electronic blips. “Guilford” epitomizes Deacon’s rich structural sensibility, one that allows him to pit various ideas against each other in a constantly shifting and engaging soundscape.
“True Thrush” makes for a great follow up to the album’s chaotic opener. Lush synth chords stammer out a stilted beat that is quickly smoothed out against various percussive sounds and Deacon’s expansive, multitracked vocals. Though Deacon’s lyrics are barely discernible, the sheer depth of the vocals’ production gives them a quality more akin to a string section or synthesizer than a human voice. As Deacon lays out broad melodies over a bed of trilling synths and booming percussion, one can’t help but be reminded of other tracks that put rhythm at the forefront. LCD Soundsystem’s “Get Innocuous” and Talking Heads’ “The Great Curve” both appear as forerunners to Deacon’s approach.
“America’s” middle is the mellowest portion of the album, and is bookended with more dissonant, experimental tunes. “Prettyboy,” the album’s fourth track, is probably the least compelling on the album. Though its complacent harmonies and soothing synthesizer work may be a welcome break for a listener going through the entire album in one sitting, it doesn’t stand out as a track that needs much attention on its own. Deacon pares back the driving rhythms that abound elsewhere on the album, making “Prettyboy” a little less exciting than the “America’s” other offerings.
The four-part “USA” suite that ends the album is clearly its centerpiece. While the first half of the album favored heavily processed acoustic and electronic sounds, the “USA” suite brings Deacon’s skills as a composer of concert music to the fore. The first movement, “USA I: Is a Monster” opens with a gloomy duet between two cellos, which gradually brightens up with the addition of bucolic French horn arrangements. Of course, it isn’t too long before Deacon throws a monkey wrench into the classical gears. Buzzing synth waves and tribal-sounding vocal chants quickly give the track an unexpected dimension.
The second movement, “USA II - The Great American Desert,” opens with random synthesizer blips and fuzz before a grinding beat comes in. Marimbas and gamelan-style percussion eventually emerge from the haze of electronic drones as Deacon takes the track in a totally unexpected direction for the movement’s close. The sly, delicate rhythms of the conclusion are reciprocated in the following movement, “USA III: Rail,” which boasts pizzicato string playing and sheepishly stuttering horn arrangements. The track eventually leads into the most consonant moment of the album, as Deacon brings spare drum beats together with grandiose string arrangements and triumphant brass flourishes.
In a playful gesture, Deacon ends “America” with the same grinding, industrial texture that opened the record. Though the final movement, “USA IV: Manifest,” is one of the album’s shortest tracks, it manages to bring much of the album into a quick summation, rattling off little ideas that were present more fully in previous tracks. There’s hardly a more suitable way to conclude the record. “America” is certainly one of the most compelling listens of the year so far.