As the career path of Dan Deacon progresses, it gets easier and easier to use words like “mature,” “serious,” and “orchestral.” The days of 2006’s “Drinking Out of Cups” seem to be the product of an entirely different person, or perhaps just a recorded experiment from the teenage years of a newly minted composer. With his latest record, one has to wonder: Was Deacon just messing around with pop music while secretly writing string section parts for an album that encompasses an entire nation, or did he stumble upon classical songwriting while coming up with dayglo nonsense (“We’re talking paper forks now!”) to play on the news at six in the morning? With Bromst, critics and fans alike began to see that Deacon’s genius went beyond insane pop; and with America, those depths begin to be plumbed.
The biggest difference between Deacon’s new LP and his first forays into the public eye is that now he seemingly can’t be contained by traditional pop song structures. There were flashes of expansive meditation as far back as “Woody Woodpecker”, but then demand came for the dance floor show jams. On his second album, the instrumentation shift began with manipulated player piano washes and the like. But even then, it’d be difficult to be prepared for a four-part suite like “U.S.A.”. The tracks may be separated, but the seamless transitions and unified scope result in the most grandiose music that Deacon has ever produced.
The first half of the album, while perhaps not as epic as “U.S.A.”, is still large. The churning, twinkly landscape blurring outside of the neon-edged car window in “True Thrush” is the next logical step past “Snookered”. The pitch-shifted harmony vocals and the twisted vocal counterpoint are trademark early Deacon, and the humming buildup from layer to layer entrances. “Lots” crushes in its dense noise, a vocal hook adrift in a sea of rough-hewn jigsaw synths. That density may be the key to the issues that Deacon has with America, the dark undercurrent that runs throughout the album. After spending time visiting Occupy movements and touring throughout lonely stretches populated by fast-food chains, he seems ready to hold up a mirror.
These aren’t split personalities, but two palettes used on the same canvas. The chugging marimba that unify “USA II: The Great American Desert” and “USA III: Rail” and the grating synth multitudes of “Guilford Avenue Bridge” meet throughout the album, rushing at each other and connecting like magnets. The lyrical themes show Deacon’s maturity and also link the two halves of the album. When he sings about “only the earth and the mountains” living long on “USA I: Is a Monster” (named after the similarly cynical defunct noise band USAISAMONSTER) and goes on to wonder about the potential of roaming the vastness of a dying country, he’s explaining his newly grand, epic vision, justifying his adjusted worldview.
The cinematic clarinet and strings of “Prettyboy” suggest that Deacon is more than ready to start that soundtracking work we’ve all heard about. Similarly, “USA III: Rail” finds the Wham City weirdo standing in front of an orchestra, commanding it like a conservatory maestro, and coming away with something awe-inspiring. The marimba flutters along at the bottom, like a river cutting across the open string fields, soaring trumpets swarming like eagles. There is nothing of Twacky Cats within several miles of a track like this, and “Lion with a Shark’s Head” sounds like child’s play in comparison.
The fact remains essential, though, that the same artist who produced this expansive album also did Spiderman of the Rings. Just as Deacon’s Technicolored view of the United States incorporates both an epic orchestra and square-wave synths, Dan Deacon is both the party starter of “Trippy Green Skull” and deft composer of America. He’s always had big, post-everything ideas after all, as on the square-drone of “My Own Face Is F-Word”. After taking in an album like this, there’s no remaining uncertainty about how he got here. There should only be reveling in the achievement, the artistic growth, and the pleasure of the experience. This is a sonic representation of the grandeur of America as it stands, a classically inspired composition built with all the tools available.
Essential Tracks: “True Thrush”, “USA I: Is A Monster”, and “USA III: Rail”