On America, his highly anticipated third album, Dan got to take his time after years of being in a hurry. He utilized the talents of many locals to work out his ideas in a recording space he had custom-built in Baltimore. Chester Gwazda, Denny Bowen, Robert O’Brien, Rich O’Meara and a small army of others (including students from the Peabody Institute, a preeminent Baltimore music conservatory) were happy to join in to help him achieve his vision.
The resulting record is just a heck of a time, a party and a sermon, a serious composition and a gleeful joyride. It is the culmination of years of hard work and musical progression on the part of Deacon and Company. The densely layered but never too busy tracks have congealed into forms both light and dark. Each reveals still more when scrutinized, seemingly always more there to discover.
“Guilford Avenue Bridge” snaps the album into action via an angry oscillating serpent before the thunder drums kick in and defeat it. We are building and building and building, layer upon layer. Right when we think we know what is going to happen, the track skews sideways, then flips upside-down. For a moment, the listener wonders if the disc is skipping before we drop out into free fall, sample and loop technique in full effect, 1988 Public Enemy meets any-era Steve Reich. We jump-cut back to the party, which is now a total rager. The cops are outside. What should we do?
The delightful lilt of second single “True Thrush” has been the anthem of the Baltimore summer, all orchestrated sunshine and carefully calibrated jaunt (full disclosure: the author appears around the “two minute” mark of the video for the song). You know things have gotten next level when that insane bridge kicks in. Is someone playing a drum kit made of rubber ducks and pinball machine bumpers? And we haven’t even gotten to the cartoon cat chorus! An endless delight, underscored by dark lyrics like “live the lies you’ve been sold/ as the nightmare unfolds/ if you don’t mind.”
First single “Lots” was a bit of an ice-breaker when first released. We know this sort of Dan Deacon song from the live good time. Things are kept straight ahead, Dan’s vocals distorted, the leader of the rally. It is hard to listen to this song and not see this past insane American year flying by, the potential for real change hanging in the air like an electric charge. There is one choice to make and that is to get ready to go.
“Prettyboy” is aptly named, a shimmer through synth-waterfalls, pulsing drumbeats and piano rolls. This is composed stuff, ready for the concert hall, and a good preview of what is to come in the second movement. The listener gets lost bathing among the rolling and repeating waves of sound.
But, we must come back to Earth for one more harsh jam, a “Crash Jam” to be more exact. The sharp edges of the synth-sentries at the gate stand in contrast to the gentle vocal take. Wait, is that a didgeridoo or is someone throat singing? How can the song stay so fuzzed out yet still manage to swing like this? We end in a frenzy of robot and human drumming, an army of hologram Keith Moons going to town, ending side one with a bang.
The second movement, the four part “USA”, is clearly Deacon’s most ambitious work to date. We begin our journey in the orchestra pit with “Is a Monster”, things building to the first rise up ahead. We can see mountains in the distance. We climb the mountain before the noise beasts enter, percussive and cussing as a vocal chorus takes us on the mountain’s edge. The song builds in an entirely new direction, like a storm rising up, consuming the human voice.
We are now in the dronescape, lost but looking up at the sky of “The Great American Desert.” A caravan approaches and we get seduced by the percussive movement and join in the journey. Before we know it, we are gliding along and seeing new wonders, mirages of a desert oasis. Things keep clanging as the winds whip up around us.
The percussion is picking up, becoming more rhythmic and orderly, soon taking over entirely, as marimba waltzes with drum kit, maraca and who knows what else to get us started on the “Rail”. We drop out and just ride, piano loops and string plucks in and out of sync with one another, the forward motion growing. Once the stuttering horns kick in, we are well on our way, the music growing more complex with each interval.
The drumbeat, steady and solid, begins the final movement “Manifest”, various motifs returning for one more powerful push forward across the plains. The vocals, layered and echoed, evoke an apocalyptic conversation among Elementals at the mountaintop. When we return to the composition’s opening movement for that last big swell, you can see Dan at conductor’s stand, reeling in this big sucker.
Dan Deacon’s new album is an epic journey and push forward, deserving of a standing ovation and well worth the wait. Both the first listen and the fiftieth can be a rewarding experience. America is not of an age, but for all time. ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED.