Dan Deacon's split personalities share 'America'

New album showcases Baltimore musician's crazy, composed sides

  • Electronic musician and composer Dan Deacon has helped put Baltimore's music scene on the map. His new album, "America," will be released Aug. 28.
Electronic musician and composer Dan Deacon has helped put… (Amy Davis photos, Lauren…)
August 24, 2012|By Wesley Case, The Baltimore Sun

Dan Deacon is obsessed with apocalypse.

From a dilapidated couch in his Station North practice space, the city's best-known electronic musician and composer quickly rattles off a list: the United States' "growing military stronghold," drone warfare, genetically modified foods, fracking to produce oil and natural gas.

"We're living in constant flux, and there's this growing stranglehold on our individual liberties and our collective liberties," Deacon, 30, said. "It's almost a Balkanization of the United States."

Can this be the same Dan Deacon who, five years ago, released the album "Spiderman of the Rings" — the Dan Deacon who loved partying and creating amusing art with the rest of the Wham City arts collective?

If the recession marked the end of the party for America, it also awoke something in Deacon. He performed at an Occupy Wall Street event in New York's Union Square, and he grew interested in the Arab Spring protests and last year's Egyptian revolution. There was a noticeable shift in his music, which became more serious, more classically influenced. He toured with an ensemble, released the darker, denser album "Bromst," and scored a Francis Ford Coppola horror film.

But Deacon's sunny, optimistic side returns on his new album, "America," due out Tuesday. The album is Deacon's attempt at merging his compositional side (he made his Carnegie Hall debut in March) with his other half, the side that initially made him famous as Wham City's rambunctious freak-out maestro and de facto leader. "America" embodies this split-thinking: Side A is five stand-alone tracks of Deacon's quirky pop, while Side B is a cohesive four-part opus titled "USA I-IV."

Deacon is trying to achieve this balance, all while addressing the social issues that consume him. It's a sign of his maturity — but also a daunting task.

Given what he sees as the heightened class warfare of the past few years, "it's insane to think we're this civilized society that treats people well," he said. "But that's the dichotomy: I do love this country. What I love about it is the land that makes it."

Cross-country traveling helped melt his malaise, he said. Deacon speaks with awe about the United States' shifting landscape. Something as simple as seeing mountains triggered an epiphany of sorts, helping to inspire him to create "America." In the process, he said, he fell back in love with his country. He realized American culture wasn't "just Walmart, corporate greed and war."

"It's also the American DIY, jazz, huge movements of experimental music," he said. "It's this huge, crazy experiment that is putting all these cultures into one small area and watching them create a new culture daily. There's very few places in the world like that."

Topically, songs on "America" — such as the driving single "Lots" and the euphoric "True Thrush" — are fueled by Deacon's expanded outlook. But his re-evaluating didn't stop at the lyrics. Deacon went back and studied his first two albums, saving the elements he still enjoyed while sifting out the parts that no longer resonated with him.

"I thought about the essences of those records I'd like to keep, and then apply those to the ideas I've been working on over the past few years — the orchestral work, the collaborations with [New York quartet] So Percussion," he said.

"America" bursts with raw energy and confidence. The first half finds Deacon reaching for transcendental pop seen through his trademark grandmotherly glasses. It features tracks dedicated to and inspired by Baltimore, such as the industrial opener "Guilford Avenue Bridge" and the '80s sci-fi-esque "Prettyboy," short for the reservoir in northern Baltimore County.

The sweeping, nearly 22-minute long "USA I-IV" marks a noticeable shift in the record, achieving exuberant highs after building with texture and dramatic flair. It's a powerful statement from someone finally appreciating his country, warts and all.

"Nothing lives long, only the earth and the mountains," Deacon sings on the first section. Later, he sings, "Leave the light on for me, I'm coming home / Hell if I know places I shouldn't roam."

Perhaps it's not surprising that a product of Baltimore's arts scene — Deacon has had a huge hand in building that scene but is always quick to say he didn't do it alone — initially inspired the album's second half.

"I named it after one of my old favorite bands and a show they did at Wham City, which used to be in the Copycat [Building]," Deacon said, referring to the now-defunct prog-noise band USAISAMONSTER. "I was thinking about this epic performance they did, where they just played forever."

Deacon has always found inspiration from his fellow artists, according to Future Islands' lead singer Sam Herring, who moved from North Carolina to Baltimore in 2008 after years of urging from Deacon.

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