“America” springs from a great personal challenge and a difficult question to answer, and it’s one of the most critically aware challenges I’ve heard from a musician in a long time. This suite of nine songs is a musical response to a longing that most people I know, people who whisper “I’m an American” rather than speaking the sentiment at full voice, ask themselves.
Dan Deacon, the Baltimore composer and sole musician on “America” posted a statement on his website explaining both his conflict and his musical answer behind the album. How can we be American in music while simultaneously loving and being repelled by aspects of our own country, facing the dark side of what we do in the world as a nation, and our lives in our hyper-consuming society? For Deacon, this became a question needing an answer when he left the States to travel around Europe. Hoping to find a place where he belonged more than here, Deacon confronted his personal fantasy that he could fit in better someplace else. His travel plunged him into a world he didn’t know, without friends, without answers. His previous strategy of taking shelter in the worlds of Do It Yourself/Do It Ourselves community-building no longer seemed adequate. The answer Deacon found was this multi-layered record.
This project faces off on being American, flaws and all. You get what you get when you’re born into a place. Deacon came home and wrote this suite of music to explore the conflict, the questions, the drift. What he found is a genuine American feeling in these nine songs.
This is a collection of mostly upbeat electronic compositions with few lyrics﹣lyrics that float into view and are present just below the surface, voices on the wind, suggestive, taking their cue from the soundscape swirling all around them.
I had to feel my way through this record. The lyrics don’t provide answers. It’s Deacon’s skill as a composer that shines here, his restless rhapsody, swinging between lyrical and almost machine music. His personal statement of travel anxiety and identity, of being an outsider, and of his return home served as an important map. This is moving music, by that I mean seeking, wandering, pulsing. When he slows down the pace in Track 4, “Prettyboy,” for example, it becomes sweet, soothing, almost romantic. It’s here that I felt the full emotional force of Deacon’s personal questing. There are places in this country where you can lose your heart to all the beauty and promise and hope. We’ve all felt it. It comes in the light, that moment of forgetting busy lives, accepting beauty as a flawed reality, but still an amazing dream under the surface. I felt Deacon’s America in this record. I miss what he misses, the loss of wilderness, the loss innocence. That’s the job of the composer, to break our hearts, just a little, even as he reminds us that there’s always a down side to any life, to any landscape.
In this way I think Deacon truly captured America as a place of tireless and moving energy. We’ve come a long way from the Industrial Revolution into the graveyard of industry today. Still, there’s something built into the American consciousness, about machines and making things as part of progress. A tearing down and building up place. A searching place. I found this record hypnotic in that way, which left me wondering about chaos as an American attribute, an American inheritance. I suppose it is, and it’s not a flattering quality. Deacon’s challenge, to “feel” America, means telling the truth about beauty, but also about the ugliness. The opening track, “Guilford Avenue Bridge,” and Track 5, “Crash Jam,” feel mechanized and machine-driven. Here movement is a thing of commerce, not created for beauty but for profit.
The record closes with a stunning four-part composition called “USA.” The energy of the music builds, struggles, and then escapes into a hopeful conclusion. Voices rise up and call out, rhythms build and “march,” almost in an anthemic way, calling us to action. The closing tracks, “USA III: Rail” and “USA IV: Manifest,” have a triumphant chant to them, voices and sound, rising and uplifting, inspiring and leading. I take this closing energy of the record to mean that, in the end, he’s found a kind of resolution. Deacon the artist, Deacon the composer comes to accept his Americanism and his country, flawed as it is, because it’s his. There’s no complex analysis or defense. He came home to come home. I love this final set of songs because I think I feel a little of what Deacon must feel: This is it, this is all we have, and every place is only as good or as bad as we allow it to be. Maybe there’s a kind of positive reaction, a personal sense of hope in that feeling, too. When I first heard this record I felt the uplift of energy, enjoyed it a lot, but missed some of the underlying questions and tensions. After reading his statement, I’ve come to think that Deacon has succeeded as an artist, and succeeded for his fans who take the time to explore this record. Give it time. Deacon took on an impossible challenge. He found his answer, and he pushed me to think a bit more about what it means to live in that question, where’s there’s no security of easy comfort or easy fixes.