“America” is not an easy word to digest. It can be framed in many ways and evoke many feelings. Patriotism, fear, passion, injustice, pride, home, separation, control, liberty, freedom, doubt—America can be used to make its countrymen feel tremendously guilty or warmly dignified. It is something worth attacking and defending. It is a gift and a curse. There is no right or wrong way to talk about America, but we all seem to agree that it is something, at least internally, that needs to be talked about.
Dan Deacon has spent most of his adult life acting foolish, and I think he would agree with me. An intelligent, cognizant and profoundly talented man, he was unfortunately content to fix himself as a cynical, rambling malcontent—eating dinners out of dumpsters in a convoluted, and ultimately self-indulgent, takedown of corporate America. It’s sad to see people respond to serious issues with angry nothings, but that’s who Deacon was. Up until a couple years ago he honestly thought the world was going to end in 2012. This pulpy apocalypse would wash away all the human trash, all the problems, all the degradation from the planet, and finally the world would know peace.
This is, of course, not the most efficient form of protest. So when Deacon decided to call his latest record America, I expected the same self-involved, anti-social, anti-human rant we’ve all collectively come to expect from that DIY state of mind. Thankfully, this is not that. Dan Deacon is not the same person he was in 2006, or even 2009. His views have matured; he’s become more compassionate, more measured, and in a lot of ways, more determined. America is not the reductive, monochromatic protest album you might expect. It instead is a vaguely optimistic rumination of all the endless complications—the ugliness, the beauty, the good and the evil that come with living under the canopy of the stars and stripes. In terms of pure philosophy, America is an album that deserves our respect.
It comes in two parts. America begins as the usual fruity, synthetic, Dan Deacon bounce, and ends as an electrified neo-classical overture. These are substantial songs— the queasy, schizoid “Lots,” the propelling power-tool thrust under “Guilford Avenue Bridge”—but Deacon is clearly more focused on his big backhalf statement. America, chronicled in four acts. I’d like to think of it as his thesis, his coming-to-terms, reflecting all the self-aware angles you ought to have when you’re writing about a topic this dense. There’s the mutated “USA I: is a Monster” or the multifaceted, violently hopeful “USA IV: Manifest,” but there’s also “USA III: Rail,” a fluttering composition built as a tribute to the impossible diversity of this country—the mountains plains and deserts, but also the fertility and relentless uniqueness of its communities.
In writing an album about America, Dan Deacon has categorically refused to take the easy way out. He’s not interested in the obvious questions or the uncomplicated perceptions—at least not anymore.
All of this is very important and deserving of any discourse it earns, but on a technical level, America is not great protest music. Sure, you can get a hefty dosage of implied ideology from the song titles and the pre-release interviews, but by nature Dan Deacon is not a political songwriter. He’s made his name off cartoonish, sugar-loaded dance music, and he’s not changing his game too much here—so the sentiments he’s keen on expressing don’t exactly work in his repertoire. His words are fractured and obfuscated, and his hooks are yippy and savagely gleeful as ever. For such an honest presentation of charged ethics, I don’t feel urged to question anything, mostly because America doesn’t seem oblique enough for its pedigree. Perhaps that’s a good thing; it makes him less preachy, and you can find a rewarding arc if you know the record’s context, but it’s not something you can acutely learn from the music. America is still undoubtedly an epic, but maybe not the world-addressing opus that Deacon might’ve wanted to make.