The entirety of Dan Deacon’s oeuvre is centred around juxtaposition. The Baltimore composer always sets his disparate influences against each other, rather than simply blending them together. For instance, on his last album, 2009’s excellent Bromst, he takes as much influence from Brian Wilson as he does Steve Reich, but it sounds little like either. He channels frenetic drum programming, an arsenal of synthesisers and several layers of treated voice into a euphoric form of pop, importing the noisy experiments of peers like Black Dice to more harmonious realms. America, his eighth record, keeps the theme of contrasted ideas – both in its depictions of his home nation, and in its expanded sound. Since Bromst, Deacon’s sonic canvas has extended, having been busy writing for orchestras on soundtracks. Of course, any portrayal of America needs at least a little symphonic bombast – everything about it is huge and bombastic.
America is set in two distinct thematic sections: The first half centres on Deacon’s pop sensibility; the second is a sprawling suite in four parts, dedicated in its name to the USA. In that respect, it’s reminiscent of at least three records – David Bowie’s Berlin high-water marks Low and ‘Heroes’, and Nine Inch Nails’ relentlessly bleak opus The Downward Spiral. Those three are regarded as seminal albums, primarily due to their skilful melding of experimentation with the framework of pop music. Which, more or less, is what Deacon does here. Drawing in concept (but not execution) from minimalism, the songs move in evolving layers, as lustrous synths and driving polyrhythms vie for supremacy. I’m not trying to say America is a seminal record (or has any greater thematic tie to those ones than they do with each other), but it definitely does benefit from the structure it does share with those albums.
The record opens with a trial by fire, in the coruscating blast of noise that bows in ‘Guilford Avenue Bridge’. Those faithful enough to maintain as Deacon’s trademark rolling thunder of drums joins it are rewarded with what can only be called an avant-garde hoedown. A keyboard imitates speedy banjo plucking, synths wash briefly around the redneck island before the drums thunder once more, into giddy, gleeful climax. It’s over almost too quickly as ‘True Thrush’ begins – Deacon’s most traditional pop concession of the album. Shimmering keys surround the summery verses, Deacon’s array of singalong selves accompanied by a campfire chorus and warped rapid-fire vocal samples. The most likely thing here to soundtrack an iPod advert, this is the Instagram filter dream of America – a nation of Twains and Kerouacs, sleeping under the stars. Juxtapositions abound: lush instrumental ‘Prettyboy’ marks the first appearance of the orchestra, waving out piano-led psychedelia with a little pensive pomp, and making the Velcro-esque synth that opens pulsing electropop number ‘Crash Jam’ even more jarring in a brilliant sequencing decision.
All of that is standard Deacon fare, though – it’s on the second half of America that things take a turn for the novel. The four parts of the ‘USA’ suite (without a doubt, the highlight) are a whirlwind tour of the nation, a high-speed train journey through all the beauty and ugliness of the first world’s vast heartland. Rather than a constantly expanding sprawl of orchestra modulated by electronics, Deacon opts to juxtapose yet again – using some of the first half’s kinetic heft to propel the brass and woodwinds. It seems almost facile to note the symbolism between the choice of instrumentation and contrasting images of the USA. The whole thing, from ‘Is a Monster’ through to ‘Manifest’, is astoundingly joyous caper, with a few pauses for reflection. It’s a testament to Deacon’s new-found artistic restraint that America is only around 40 minutes in length, and further to his progress as songwriter that so much happens in that time – there aren’t any chances for the listener to lose concentration. After the countless listens this review has required, I’m still entertained throughout – and still finding new joy in it. My recommendation: Turn it up and look forward to tinnitus, with a huge grin on your face.