Culture | “America,” the beautiful and strange

Dan Deacon’s newest, a pop-culture’d journey through the national myth

“I would say that it sounds different to everyone, just like how the word itself has different meanings and connotations to everyone,” Deacon says when asked what America, the country that lends its name to his newest album, sounds like. “There is no singular definition of ‘America,’ so in my mind there is no singular sound.” Deacon fully embraces this sense of multiplicity, carving the contours of a landscape from a wide range of sounds: grandly swelling brass, fluttering strings, blade-sharp synthesized squeals, and rubbery bounce. Many classical elements (including a full orchestra) were employed in the recording process as well, and they don’t sound out of place in the least. Seven-minute odyssey “USA II: The Great American Desert” effortlessly blends an angelic backing choir with clattering percussion and a noise like your computer made when connecting to the internet in 1999, and compels the listener to accept it without batting an eyelash.

To be fair, this isn’t everyone’s album. You may not have to be an American to appreciate America, but it might help to be a bit of a music geek, already somewhat familiar with the tradition of buzzing, noisy abstract cool from which Deacon hails. It’s a long ranging indie trend, stretching back to the outskirts of sixties psychedelia – think the Velvet Underground at their most abstract. As a possibly unconscious tribute to its forbears, almost every track on America (with the notable exception of the bright, airy “USA III: Rail”) retains a bit of buzzing bass at the low end, something to make the Velvets proud. Deacon’s work tends towards baroque, gearheaded detail with a found-music motif: when the orchestra drops out, it sometimes sounds like he’s composing his music completely from old video game samples and sci-fi movie soundtracks, everything from low-budget fifties fare to recent blockbusters. A cousin of the Inception noise even makes a cameo in the background of “Crash Jam.”

Don’t get too scared, though. Deacon is far from aloof in his avant garde-ness, bringing a comfy sense of digital community to his music, particularly his live shows. Recently, he even managed to create a symphony of smartphones. He stumbled across the idea while working on a “classical” piece for the Ecstatic Music Festival, which sought to hand out music sheets and involve the audience in its performance. “I realized most of the audience members have cell phones, and that they can be used to make sound. I was really pleased with the performance and the results and kept thinking about how phones can be thought of as controllable light and sound sources, and if they were synchronized it would make it so that really unique spatial performance
environments could be created.”

Our neighbour to the south is rather large. This being the case, America has become fond of paying artistic tribute to itself, generally with self-serious works that can be described as expansive and sprawling and maybe even epic. Happily, Deacon’s album manages to bypass the “self-serious” designation while fully embracing a sense of size. While he’s matured a bit since the beginning of his career (early albums featured song titles such as “My Own Face is an F Word” and “All Wet and No Boner”), Deacon’s music retains a distinct, refreshingly immature underpinning of joy; of possibility. He uses internet-age technology and symbols to tell a slightly old-fashioned story, at once pastoral and industrial. This isn’t America-the-lumbering-imperialist-giant, or America-the-greasy-and-obese, or America-the-backwards. This album feels more like a portrait of the mythical, bigger-than-life Land of Opportunity; America the Beautiful, but updated, a little less stuffy. The jury’s out on whether this place ever has or ever will exist in our reality, but it’s nice to close your eyes and pretend once in a while.

Dan Deacon will be playing November 10 at the Society for Arts and Technology (SAT), 1201 St. Laurent. Doors open at 10 p.m. Tickets are $16.95 in advance; $20 at the door.