Dan Deacon is an outstanding composer. He is also a goddamned instigator. So while he made his Carnegie Hall debut this year, a few weeks later he was getting 10,000 people to do crazy dances at a massive Occupy Wall Street rally in Union Square. Deacon has always made trailblazing music that moves people to do things they wouldn’t normally do. But on his new album, America, he takes that idea a giant step further. “I hope the people who take the time to listen to these songs enjoy them,” says Deacon, “but I hope that anyone looking for anything beyond that can find inspiration to change the world for the better.”
There’s some alchemy going on here. Yes, the lyrics are full of bleak, even apocalyptic imagery, but the music is keenly hopeful, with beats that make you want to dance, teeming major keys that lift the spirit, and Deacon’s voice hollering defiantly from the depths of his own joyous cacophony. Eclipsing its own despair, the music simulates the rush of being involved in something bigger and better than yourself.
Dan Deacon shows are renowned for the spectacle of hundreds, even thousands, of jubilant people doing coordinated movement, whether it’s vast, swirling circles, long, snaking lines or just over-the-top dance contests. It’s a sight to behold, but it’s even more amazing to participate. And for Deacon, what is ostensibly just “fun” started to take on a profound dimension, of people uniting and claiming physical space in an ecstatic act of empowerment. He saw a metaphor in there, a connection with revolutionary movements like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. America is the soundtrack of that realization — like James Brown once said, “Get up! Get into it! Get involved!”
After 2009?s Bromst, Deacon did a lot of touring, but he also worked a lot in the classical world. In 2011, he played his long-form piece Ghostbuster Cook: Origin of the Riddler with the acclaimed So Percussion as part of New York’s prestigious Ecstatic Music Festival, and New York magazine named it of one of the top 10 classical music performances of 2011. In 2012, Deacon returned to that same festival and premiered the evening-length An Opal Toad with Obsidian Eyes with the NOW Ensemble and the Calder String Quartet. Canada’s 50-piece
Kitchener-Waterloo orchestra premiered Deacon’s first orchestral works, “Fiddlenist Rim” and “Song of the Winter Solstice,” in 2011, the same year of Deacon’s first film score, for Francis Ford Coppola’s Twixt. And then there was that Carnegie Hall debut, another So Percussion collaboration, in celebration of the music of John Cage. All of these became part of Deacon’s rich tapestry, woven in with countless sweaty, grimy DIY shows in basements and lofts, viral Youtube videos, and even two comedy tours.
Deacon started out as a solo electronic musician, but after doing tours with the Dan Deacon Ensemble, Deacon began to embrace making music with large groups of people. And so for America, he resolved to do something he’d never done before: try things out in the studio with different players on different instruments. Again: community and people power.
America is a study in density, a thick but nuanced mix of acoustic and synthetic timbres, a mix of Deacon’s pop side (as in 2007?s Spiderman of the Rings) and his more composerly side (Bromst). There’s also dance music culture in the DNA of this music, but suffused with the top-to-bottom distortion and overdrive of noise music and the instrumentation and sweep of orchestral music. America has echoes of Steve Reich and Terry Riley for sure, but Deacon engages with minimalism in a maximalist way — dense and relentless, it’s crammed with sound and joy, an overwhelming experience to immerse and dance within.
The opening “Guilford Avenue Bridge” is a vivid instrumental memoir about the early days of the Wham City art collective, when Deacon would throw parties and nervously wait to see if anyone would show up. You can hear his heart pounding with anticipation via powerhouse drumming by Dan Deacon Ensemble member Denny Bowen, then a lull that seems to suggest the empty loft waiting to be filled, and finally a triumphal reprise as people come streaming in for an anarchic night of serious fun.
“True Thrush” is about conformism, apathy, alienation, and just plain losing your way. Pretty grim, right? But it’s a catchy, anthemic, fist-pumping summer jam, possibly the greatest pop song Deacon has ever created.
Redemption and transcendence are baked right into the music. Rise above, people! “Lots” is another powerhouse, a rock song that harbors all the animating frictions of America: On the one hand, the narrator walks a dire, apocalyptic landscape, and on the other, he vows, “Now we stand upon a chance/ to break the
chains and break the lance” — to break the cycle of oppression and war and build a new world.
The instrumental “Prettyboy” is an idyllic respite from the strife and clamor, just like the song’s namesake, Prettyboy Reservoir Park, about an hour north of Baltimore. But then comes “Crash Jam” — what Deacon calls “a drum-focused vocoder barnburner” — about the timeless, healing power of nature. The song was inspired by a Dan Deacon Ensemble tour that didn’t really gel until the band camped out in a state park in New Mexico and bonded over the campfire — another song about communion and the almost spiritual power a deeply united
group of people can have.
The album’s finale, the 21-minute magnum opus “USA,” features 22 virtuosic players, many recruited from the prestigious Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore representing every section of the
orchestra in bringing to life this epic cross-country sonic travelogue. As Deacon hurtled across the country on his many tours, he concluded that we’ve lost touch with the beauty of our own land, and spare few opportunities to despoil it. The words, as Deacon says, are “about the destruction of that land and the feeling of being disenfranchised, of having no connection to your home,” but the exultant music of “USA” celebrates that beauty in all its vast and varied glory.
And so what to do? America doesn’t pretend to supply the answers, but it does offer the energy to help us find them. As Deacon is fond of saying, “The future surrounds us. Let us begin.”