My mother was a firm believer in Marian apparitions and went to great lengths to impart this belief upon my siblings and me. It was mostly salutary stuff: prayer, sacrifice, faith in Jesus Christ — the building blocks of every Catholic boy’s religious formation. But many of these apparitions had their dark side, too: dire predictions of political upheaval, religious persecution at the hands of foreign (communist) powers, and, of course, divine chastisement, the inevitable wrath of God that would cleanse the earth and start us back at year zero.
Until fairly recently, Dan Deacon subscribed to a belief in the 2012 phenomenon, the Mayan calendar-inspired theory that, in the artist’s own words, the earth is getting ready to slide into either “a new age of enlightenment and unity and we’ll be raised to a new level of consciousness, or it could be a return to a dark age of kings and mass, open oppression followed by a die-off of human culture.”
As perverse as it may sound, these kinds of dramatic, end-of-the-world scenarios are a source of comfort to those who adhere to them. In my experience, they are the result of having to live in a world that has become too frightening or simply too painful to endure. My mother’s preoccupation with global catastrophe had its seeds in the societal shifts away from “traditional American values” in the 1960s and 70s, from the slow-burn of Cold War paranoia and from the culture war being waged within the Catholic Church in the wake of Vatican II. For Deacon, it sprang from both the agonizing experience of losing his mother to cancer and attempting to make sense of the cold indifference and shocking incompetence shown by representatives of a medical industry that was supposed to have her best interests at heart.
I didn’t spend my entire childhood living in fear, but the way I was raised did cause me to internalize a vague sense of fatality, a tacit understanding that it wasn’t worth getting too invested in the world around me. Deacon’s belief in the precariousness of life on earth revealed itself in the unhinged, live-for-the-moment ecstasy of Spiderman of the Rings and in an equally wild lifestyle to go along with it.
When you go your whole life thinking the world as you know it has an expiration date, you don’t spend a lot of time planning for the future.
But as his belief in the cosmic extinction event abated, Deacon’s approach and attitude towards his art had to change, too. For his newest album, Deacon has turned his gaze upon the great, unfathomable beast that is America, in an attempt to determine what the land of his birth means to him. After much soul-searching and some cross-country travel, it was the land itself that spoke to him, the vast open spaces and great expanses of untrammeled earth sprawled out between its borders. And thus, America is organized into two distinct sides, in sort of a reverse-mullet. You’ve got the party in the front, with an assortment of more pop-oriented songs, and in the back… well, not exactly business, but “USA,” an ambitious 20-minute composition broken into four distinct movements.
The A-side is hit-or-miss. Tracks like the dreamy instrumental “Prettyboy” or “Crash Jam,” with its alternation between cantering verse and swooning chorus don’t stick with me for very long, but you simply canNOT mess with “Lots.” At just under three minutes, it’s the shortest cut on the album and one of the juiciest slices of noise-pop bliss that Deacon has served up to date. His affinity for forcing incongruous elements into unlikely concord has never been shown to greater effect, with samples of ethereal vocal harmonies spread out like mayonnaise over a jagged crust of screeching electronics.
The “USA” suite is where the real action is, though. It begins with the regal opening strains of “USA I: Is a Monster” (a reference, I can only assume, to these guys). The mingling of orchestral grandeur and Deacon’s technological whimsy recalls some of Bromst’s most rousing entries. But the biggest head-turner is the third movement, “Rails.” The track has already been the subject of much discussion for the lengths that Deacon went to in order to capture it, constructing an anechoic chamber (a “floating room within a room,” according to his Pitchfork interview) and laying down hundreds of layers of mostly acoustic instrumentation. In content and execution, it bears a lot of resemblance to Steve Reich’s Different Trains, capturing the same sense of movement, the overwhelming feeling of anticipation that comes from being born along on hundreds of tons of chugging steel and iron to one’s destination. Of course, Reich was, in part, preoccupied by the mind-boggling accident of fate that found him on a cross-country train ride from New York to L.A. during the second World War, when, had he been born across the Atlantic, he could just have easily have been on his way to a death camp. Deacon seems more concerned with the railroad for its centrality to the American identity — not just for its romantic, historical significance, but also for its metaphorical embodiment of the notion of “progress,” the locomotive’s relentless forward motion.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the final movement is titled “Manifest.” The railroad was, after all, a key instrument in the taming of the American West. It laid the groundwork for what we have become as a nation today, but of course, at a cost — to the indigenous populations, to the land, and to our ancestors themselves — that is impossible to fathom. “Manifest” forms a brief and triumphal coda, pulling in some of the motifs from the first movement, but with just a shred of doubt and uncertainty humming beneath the surface.
Once you realize that the world isn’t going away, you need to figure out a way to live in it. America is representative of Deacon’s resolution to do that. He is, in his own way, attempting to confront the tangled legacy that is every American’s birthright and to connect with his or her homeland at the most basic and fundamental level. Through his exuberant, alien compositions, Deacon seeks to manifest for us the wild places of his country, the barren plains and arid deserts, and in the process, reminds us that they are things worth preserving.