In 2007, Dan Deacon felt forced to face the truth. He embraced the creed of Baltimore’s DIY scene, which entailed rummaging through dumpsters for food and creating his breakout album Spiderman of the Rings with dollar-store synths fluttered and swarmed faster than most people can think. He performed these songs while standing in the middle of the crowds, rather than in front of them. Deacon was doing everything he could to distance himself from what he associated with the United States — in his eyes, “an evil, Earth-destroying monster of war, corporate greed and bigotry.” But in 2007, while touring Europe for Spiderman, he felt alone as, undeniably, an American.
It’s easy to imagine Deacon suddenly becoming hyper-aware of his true national identity; culture shock’s earlier, anxiety-ridden stages tend to revel in differences great and small, in everything from governmental influence to which foods are readily available. It’s easy to imagine because of 2009’s Bromst. While Spiderman was a gleeful stimulus overload, Bromst felt more conscientious. Deacon seemed to be getting lost inside his own head, synths still firing like synapses, but this time quieter demons loomed overhead. His time spent in Europe, plus Bromst’s soul-searching, is what made America possible. “To me, the underground DIY and wilderness are just as American as their evil brethren, corporatism and environmental destruction,” he wrote in a statement on his website. “It’s that juxtaposition of fundamentally opposed ideologies that makes up the American landscape.”
“If ’Spiderman’ was cartoonish, then ’America’ is a Hayao Miyazaki film.”
Deacon has found a startling similarity as this year’s presidential election draws near and the election season intensifies — pitting left-wing rhetoric against right-wing rhetoric, Michael Moore against Dinesh D’Souza, Wall Street against Occupy Wall Street. America is similarly divided. The first part is a string of short, satisfying pop songs named after vibrant landmarks of his beloved stomping grounds. (According to The Baltimore Sun, the Guilford Avenue Bridge glows like “an iridescent bumper sticker,” thanks to a metallic foil coating.) The second part is the four-suite, 21-minute “USA,” and its use of actual strings and brass helps Deacon’s music seem far more storied than usual. (Titles like “Manifest” also help.) Slow, determined woodwinds forge on, no matter how many jerky or grimy glitches seem to interfere. Initially, every aspect of America seems to be dueling against each other.
However, America’s most powerful moments all seem to tell the same story. In “USA” opener “Is a Monster,” a pained string melody wobbles as it takes its first steps, until horns help to steady its course. Those brass notes feel like the same emotional backbone as the faint choir and robot echoes in third track “Lots.” Deacon was yelling as if relaying an urgent message via a fading signal, and once these voices join him, he persists in making sure his last word is heard, even though static seems to have consumed his own vocals completely. Struggles like these never seem to last for long, not amidst all of these moments of triumph. America opens with “Guilford Avenue Bridge,” where abrasive synths whirr and buzz until a brighter melody flitters through — what sounds like hummingbirds prevailing against electric saws. Later, when “USA” transitions from “The Great American Desert” to “Rail,” already rapid-fire, chugging xylophone notes suddenly morph into the most delicate plucking, the notes weaving into each other and growing more intricate, like cat’s cradle. If Spiderman was cartoonish, then America is a Hayao Miyazaki film.
In press materials, Deacon mentioned his love for cross-country travel and how the changes in seasons would cast these U.S. landscapes under different lights. However, America feels more like a time-lapse video, with all of its changes in minutiae and this bigger picture that persists. Interference like gloomier melodies or ugly splotches of synths feels impenetrable upon first encounter, but especially after a few listens, they’re reduced to mere blips as brighter, more hopeful melodies bury them and simultaneously build upon each other. In the end, America has an optimistic outlook in all of its depictions of persistence and perseverance, compared to Deacon’s earlier hopes that the world would end in 2012. “All our problems would be solved, because there would be no more problems,” Deacon said to Pitchfork. “But that’s not the answer. That’s like throwing out your dishes because they’re dirty — even if your dishes are filthy as fuck, you clean them.”
But at the same time, America’s every blip, note, melody and song feels like a vital piece of Deacon’s cogwork — whether depicting one feeling or another, perhaps one era or another, or even one landscape to another. As Deacon noted himself, DIY is just as American of a concept as capitalism. It could even be his answer to self-sufficiency — referring specifically to the lack of financial aid, as right-wing rhetoric tends to emphasize. Either way, by drawing this comparison and also referencing Baltimore landmarks and landmark moments in westward expansion, Deacon inadvertently calls attention to just one more point that America makes. While “DIY” stands for “do-it-yourself,” he never actually could have created America alone.
America is out now via Domino.