It’s oddly fitting that Dan Deacon’s America comes out the same week that the Republican National Convention is held in Tampa Bay. It’s not that Deacon’s vision of his homeland is similar to the GOP’s Randian hellscape—though some of the album’s more epic orchestral moments wouldn’t sound totally out of place in a campaign video. It’s that both offer a radical vision of what America could be. Where the Republican’s vision of America is mostly defined by lower taxes for the wealthy, less government programs and an ill-defined conception of freedom, Deacon’s version is based on far more nebulous and personal ideas of compassion, sacrifice and hope. Though Deacon has been a vocal and active supporter of the Occupy Wall Street movement, his latest album is neither an op-ed nor a manifesto; instead it’s a deeply personal and thoughtful meditation on national themes by a guy who’s perhaps most famous for a video starring a talking lizard.
It took a while for Deacon to arrive at this point. Anyone who fell in love with the swirling joy and Red Bull-infused glee of early ’00s Deacon works like Silly Hat Vs. Egale Hat or Porky Pig will find textures, noises and moments to recognize in this new album, but those giddy pleasures now come couched in a more ambitious and tasteful package. Spiderman Of The Rings was in many ways the last gasp of the old Deacon style, a cacophonous pileup of ear-splitting beats, cascading synth explosions, choral chipmunk vocals and all of the sonic clarity of a paintball gun. With 2009′s Bromst Deacon moved toward a gentler, increasingly percussive style that featured more live instruments and a greater emphasis on composition and song craft. It added some vegetables to go with all of those Pixy Stix.
With a title like America it’s easy to see why some fans might worry that Deacon has sucked all of the sugar from his musical diet and switched only to potatoes. It’s a title that announces itself as significant but also smacks of self-indulgence, like naming your album Religion, Earth or Hey! Watch Me Explain Everything! But here’s the thing: Deacon is such an affable musical host—gregarious, kind-hearted, self-deprecating, reflective—that he can get away with almost any stylistic leap, including writing a four-part song suite called “USA” that wouldn’t look out of place on a ’70s prog album.
Also, he wrote a few great pop songs, including America‘s lead single, “True Trush,” the only track on the album that truly matches the pop-indebted, communal whoosh of Bromst pieces like “Snookered” or “Build Voice.” Over a locomotive-like percussive chug, Deacon loops multiple vocal parts (yes, the chipmunk vocals remain) to achieve a dizzying choral effect that merges orchestral ambition with dance-floor-ready weirdo theatrics. “Spread those wings wide and take me along/Now show me the sky and tell me I’m home,” he sings as the track continues to build throughout, sounding like a constant crescendo. “Lots” takes on a harsher tone, mixing almost Nine Inch Nails-like vocals and rumbling electronics into the usual soup. Other tracks take on Steve Reich-style minimalism (“Prettyboy”), while others summon a slithering, mutant strand of modern EDM (“Crash Jam”).
Then there’s “USA.” In four distinct parts that don’t always cohere but offer no shortage of thrills, Deacon crafts a soundtrack to his own American experience, one rooted in the excitement of travel, defined by communal urges and marked by alienation. There’s just a staggering ambition to the whole thing: In a recent interview Deacon explained that the song’s third section, “Rail,” was recorded in an anechoic chamber using almost exclusively acoustic instruments to achieve a closed-off, airless sound that’s closer to an electronic composition than a conventional classical piece. The “Rail” section in particular is so far from the paper-thin cartoon aesthetic of Deacon’s old sound that it’s hard to imagine this section being recreated in a live setting with all of those sweaty bodies, wild dance moves and flashing smartphones twirling in the audience. Deacon’s much-remarked-upon personal history as a conservatory-trained musician and composer comes into play here as the buzzing electronics take their place next to soaring string sections, murmuring horns and wildly imaginative percussion sections.
With its multiple parts, its recurring motifs and its thematic hutzpah “USA” isn’t easy to parse or process, but it’s not impenetrable; Deacon remains committed to pop forms and rock songwriting despite his concert-hall inclinations. His America is an inclusive place that doesn’t make concessions to the close-minded but does offer multiple entryways for any music fan, whether they’re a neon-loving rave kid, an indie-rock snob or an adventurous classical music fan. Unlike the politicians we see on TV every night, Deacon never panders, choosing instead to show us a series of wondrous and complex vistas and asking if we’d like to join him.