by Ruairí McCann
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Thanks to that most American of virtues – an unapologetic earnestness – Baltimore-based musician Dan Deacon – in his lyrics, interviews and in the goofball soapbox aspect of his live performances – is loose-tongued and lucid about the headspace which produced his fifth and newest album, Mystic Familiar (2020); a long play expression of reaching the acceptance that to be alive is to be subjected to a world where a single person’s place is likely to be minuscule and their time limited.
Dan Deacon as the premier example of ‘music-as-sugar-rush’ or as a fidgety and dense object is far from gone; lead single “Sat By A Tree” is more typically busy and extroverted, kicking off with a hee-hawing sax refrain and then carried forward by detailed bass and modular synthesis and an enthusiastic vocal melody. Ultimately Deacon seeks to recreate this peace of mind, crafting his most languorous record to date. Here his voice is relatively effects-free, sounding more pensive than even on his previous LP, the similarly introspective Gliss Riffer (2015). Describing with cowed reverence the realization that the human form is mere matter, disposable and recyclable, in opener “Become A Mountain” or when his chipmunk pitched voice does appear, more often than not it is cast as a consoling response to his speculative call. The eponymous spirit guide, intoning Deacon or the listener to ‘close your eyes’ in “IV: Any Moment”, the final section of the multi-track “Arp”, and to ‘dig deep’ in “Deeper Than The Ocean”.
Standing out distinct from the sounds produced by the rest of his crowded set-up is the album’s heavy use of modular synthesizers. Set to sequence high-toned, psychedelic arias or play more free form wanderings in reminiscence of the work of one of electronic music’s founding fathers and supreme hippies, Terry Riley. They allow Deacon to explore more off-the-beaten-track associations like on the short instrumental “Hypnagogic”; an electronic melange and approximation of a mosque’s call for prayer or an Irish folk lament. Or in the orchestral “Weeping Choir”, also instrumental, where the synthesis mimics, and hums alongside, an ascending string section.
The album’s relative calm and that descriptor ‘orchestral’ points to an often reductive, but here appropriate, designation. A ‘mature work’, which for many critics is an ideal attained when an artist’s ambition has leveled off after having developed a certain confidence of expression. This album fits that particular bill because it feels like a synthesis of all that has come before. A cross-section of many points of reference, as, like many distinctive artists, Deacon is torn between different tendencies. Born and raised in Long Island, it made all the sense in the world to furnish his burgeoning interest in music by making the hop, skip and jump over to New York City and specifically SUNY Purchase, where he studied music theory and composition. Yet while invested in exploring the potentialities of dissonance and density, which his classical training encouraged, he found himself hankering for the immediacy of pop music. Its casualness and inclusivity seemed not only appealing on its own terms but as an oppositional force. A tonic for the unwavering seriousness of purpose, the shirt-and-tie pomp and hermitically-sealed quality often proliferate in modern art music circles. Following a scattershot, in terms of genre, series of independent releases, all of these influences were consolidated in his first commercially released LP, 2007’s Spiderman of the Rings. A primarily electronic endeavour, drawing from noise, breakcore, synthpop and his own clownish sense of humour as well as his maximalist and polyrhythmic pursuits as a composer. He would later expand his sound with his next two LPs, Bromst (2009) and America (2012) – ambitious works which were built to a larger scale. Bringing pianos, vibraphones, horns, strings and bass guitar to a studio and stage that previously, mainly, fielded electronics, his voice and maybe a drummer or two.
Leading from Gliss Riffer’s thesis as a back to basics album – for while not entirely a solo effort, it was a more modest work compared to orchestra-sized arrangements found on the previous two albums – Mystic Familiar, similarly, keeps Deacon’s maximalist notions at a more intimate scale but also seeks a return to utilizing other musicians (and the textures they add). The four-track suite “Arp” is this record’s best use of such conditions, as it is stripped-down in comparison to his other major suite, “USA” from America, yet exceedingly detailed, and sees his sound skirt new territory. Its first two parts, “I: Wide Eyed” and “II: Float away”, are constructed to fit his now familiar approach of adding layer after layer until the sound palette is concentrated and dynamic, just short of unintelligibility. He starts with two drumlines – one for each ear – which are introduced out of sync then progress to play together in an increasingly perfect harmony or syncopation. As they build the tempo, Deacon’s voice begins to gather steam and adds synth and piano lines – the latter programmed on a player piano which has been his closest musical companion since Bromst. By the time we are halfway through “Float Away”, a great complexity has been accumulated and is raging.
It is one thing to pile on, but Deacon is an expert in reinforcing the rush by stripping back and then steering his seemingly out of control creation into unexpected new directions. The example of the first occurs two minutes into “Float Away” when the synths and vocals suddenly drop to highlight the drums and an astonishingly beautiful cavalcade of piano lines before whipping up the storm again with the return of Deacon’s vocals, which sound huge thanks to their effects, as if sourced from a divinity bellowing commands from up on high. At the beginning of the third track, “III: Far From The Shore”, it all stops, silenced on the onset of a short burst of free jazz produced by saxophonist Andrew Bernstein (who plays said instrument and percussion for the extraordinary Baltimore prog band Horse Lords). Many musicians have passed through and returned to the Dan Deacon project with their working relationship to him generally defined as their session players to his composer/producer. Until this album, that is, through a concerted, if minimal, attempt to see how his compositions change with the creative input from other players. The result is that though Bernstein plays a more conventionally supportive role on “Sat By A Tree”, his fore-fronted improvisation in “Arp” alters its course. Not banishing but diminishing the stampede of electro-acoustic elements to a few reprises and turning the remainder of the suite onto a looser tact. A slower tempo and a hazy soundscape advanced by Deacon switching to a vocoder and laying down spacey synth lines which, through a combination of phaser and flanger effects, sound like a tide once brimming, now receding back into the foam.
The flipside of maturity is that it can create too tame and edge-free of an object. The placement of the track, “Old Friend”, makes sense for an album looking for airtight structure functioning as a step in the comedown from a busy peak, mid-Arp. The track is too dull and indistinct to live long in the mind. And since his vocals are clearer on this album than ever before, and with lyrics that stick to a unified theme, close attention is meant to be paid to their content. Yet what is too often heard is just pat New Age homilies. That it stokes nostalgia for the absurdist indexes of his earlier work is perhaps unfair, for it cannot be expected that a man pushing forty, with that age’s responsibilities and often greater gift for reflection, to have the same approach to lyrics as a twentysomething whose life was more carefree and could therefore take the time to indulge in fantasy. Yet Gliss Riffer, with tracks like “When I Was Done Dying”, finds an imaginative middle-ground which he largely abandons here for the more hackneyed motivational. .
On the whole, the album maintains Deacon’s place as one of the most distinctive experimentalists in pop music. It helps that it finishes on a high. “Bumble Bee Crown King” is an instrumental thrust along by a fleet patter of breakbeats and synth lines straining then either flecking off at their highest pitch or joining till they swell to an enormous conurbation during the track’s second half. Another key ingredient is the album’s second major case of a more open approach to collaboration, with former Ponytail member Dustin Wong recording a series of guitar lines, again improvised, which Deacon then processed, cut up and littered throughout the track. These piping six stringed missives transform the mood, giving it an ecstatic quality that is the closest the album comes to mustering a sonic equivalent of the storm then calm of an epiphany.