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"America"

7.5/10
Dan Deacon – America
22 August 2012, 08:58 Written by Chris Lo
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If songwriters are fuelled by ideas, consider Baltimore-based electronic artist Dan Deacon turbo-charged and fuel-injected. Since his breakthrough 2007 album Spiderman of the Rings introduced the world to his playground of euphoric beats, Woody Woodpecker samples and communal party vibes, he’s been careening around the cultural landscape like a whirling dervish. Writing and touring 2009’s Bromst, which developed his rapturous style while also peeling it back to its most concentrated core, hardly scratched the surface of what he’s been up to. Obviously, he’s had duties as tribal elder of Baltimore art commune Wham City, not to mention performing at comedy shows, composing experimental remixes of tween-pop songs, scoring a Francis Ford Coppola movie, rabble-rousing at Occupy Wall Street and writing his own classical piece, the amusingly entitled ‘Ghostbuster Cook: Origin of the Riddler’.

All of which makes it slightly baffling that Deacon has found the time to write and record his latest album America, let alone fit out his own tailor-made studio space specifically for the purpose. The title alone seems to indicate some kind of change – in the context of a career that has produced such names as Twacky Cats and Acorn Master, the simplicity and portentousness of a title like America is discordant, like a stern headmaster stumbling into a rave.

But during the first half of America, surprises will be few and far between, at least for established fans. It’s not that there’s been no progression. The album’s first five tracks follow the pattern started with Bromst, as Deacon continues to pare back his sound’s zany abandon and double down on the nucleus of his creative force: melody and momentum that accumulates and builds until its bursts with a joy that’s collective rather than individual. Movement and joy – the Dan Deacon way. The same approach drives the sunny chirps of ‘True Thrush’ and the distorted squeals on ‘Guilford Avenue Bridge’.

He still finds room to innovate – the Mogwai-esque ‘Prettyboy’ slows the pace a mite as it unfurls into the most straight-up lovely song he’s released since 2007’s ‘Big Milk’ – but as creative and vivid as it is, America opens as a satisfying refinement of Deacon’s signature atmosphere, rather than any great leap forward.

But, as you might have guessed by now, the album’s halfway mark signals quite a turning point. The last four songs on the album are grouped into a single suite under the name ‘USA’. It’s here that Deacon’s priorities seem to shift away from dancing and towards description. These four songs, which introduce an unprecedented array of classical instrumentation, feel like his attempt to soundtrack his home country on the biggest scale possible. ‘USA i: Is A Monster’ opens with honest-to-god orchestral swells before transforming into an industrious, digitised cacophony that evokes the single-minded consumption and creation of a hungry nation. And you can practically see the mountains and plains as they slide by the train window on ‘USA iii: Rail’, which hums through its six-minute runtime in a blur of ticking percussion and optimistic horns, inspired by a cross-country rail trip Deacon took in 2006.

This descriptive quality makes America’s second half feel like a cross between a film score, a classical piece and a state of the nation address. This might be the Olympic withdrawals talking, but it brings to mind Danny Boyle’s impeccably judged opening ceremony in its musical descriptiveness and grand portayal of a national landscape, both physical and cultural. It might sound like a stretch, but listen to the massed drums and soaring choirs of ‘USAii: The Great American Desert’, then tell me you can’t see those glowing Olympic rings being lifted to the top of a stadium and showering sparks all over the place. The references might be different, but the spirit feels very much the same.

Maybe it’s Deacon’s recent forays into classical composition that have nudged him in this new direction. Whatever the case, it’s a glove that both fits him perfectly and integrates relatively seamlessly into his wider body of work. It works so well, in fact, that you find yourself wishing the same epic vision had been spread across the whole album. After all, we’ve got his last two albums if we want to dive back into his original sound. And as much as his past should be revisited and appreciated, America might be remembered as the moment Dan Deacon discovered his future.

Listen to America

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