If I could choose one track to represent the whole Dan Deacon aesthetic, it would probably be “Aerosmith Layer” from one of his early albums called Meetle Mice. The “composition”, as it were, is simply every track on Permanent Vacation layered on top of each other, creating what essentially adds up to an unlistenable mess; a dozen Steven Tylers shouting over each other, riffs clanging and bouncing off each other haphazardly, familiar melodies becoming audible for a third of a second and then disappearing into the fold. After four minutes it starts to die down, until the end when you simply hear the honking and “hey boy, dontcha lie on the track” from “Hangman Jury”. It is hilarious, completely insane, and a good indicator of where Dan Deacon’s mind is at.
On Spiderman of the Rings, the analogue to this track would be “Jimmy Joe Roche”. Not that it’s anywhere near as cacophonic or bizarre, but it has a similar mindset. It starts with a simple, classical-sounding figure, played on what sounds like a heavily modified Atari chip. This gets doubled up and starts harmonizing with itself, while wild, chirpy melodies start to come in. The drum – just a constant “thump-thump-thump-thump” is introduced as more and more melodies pile up on top of each other. There is a ‘breakdown’ section, after which everything starts to come in at once, as the melodies start to speed up into oblivion. Imagine say, the speeding-up synth line that ends “Karn Evil 9” extrapolated into an entire song. Now multiply that by 20 and you have a good idea of what “Jimmy Joe Roche” sounds like (how many notes are there in the last thirty seconds of this thing? Ten thousand?) It is pretty, but it is also the musical equivilent of a strobe light, disorienting and more intense than the human brain can parse. Certainly Squarepusher and Aphex Twin have played around in this space, but even at a calm n’ crisp 120 BPM this stuff wouldn’t exactly be music you could dance to.
When Spiderman of the Rings was released in 2007, it really did sound completely fresh, and I think a lot of critics said that at the time, noting that it was music that would probably hold up well despite it’s rather gimmicky nature. His music really does speak to “the child inside”, to use one of the worst of all music writing cliches, not because it invokes any real nostalgia or emotion, but rather because it appeals to that seemingly infinite energy and single-mindedness that children of a certain age have. Not that the album in simple; it might be the most melodically dense album of the year. But if you can imagine a little boy banging on a toy piano as fast as he can, or smacking everything in the kitchen cupboards together, you get a sense of what Deacon’s working with here. The chant in “Wham City”, the centerpiece of the entire album, isn’t so much meant to be sung as it is yelled at the top of the lungs of as many people as possible (sample lyric: “ghosts and cats and pigs and bats with brooms and bats and wigs and rats and play big dogs like queens and kings and everyone plays drums and sings”). The opening track takes the signature laugh of Woody Woodpecker, layers it on top of itself, distorts it to hell, and builds a bunch of squiggly melodies around it. In most hands this would be a total mess, but the classically trained Deacon really knows what he’s doing here, writing melodies that play well together, putting crescendos in the right place, and sometimes even giving the listener a chance to breathe. It’s the kind of music Neil Cicierega would make if he grew up on Devo and Steve Reich instead of Devo and They Might Be Giants.
Has it held up? Certainly there’s a part of it that hasn’t; the mismatched outfits, spastic dancing, and low-budget music videos with random imagery and big flashing pastel colors makes him seem like a Tim and Eric sideshow. I’ve seen him repeatedly called a “hipster”; in fact nearly every time he’s brought up there’s that accusation. Not that “hipster” is necessarily a pejorative but the is implication that he’s making this kind of music as a joke, and anyone who enjoys it is only enjoying it ironically. They said that about Andrew W.K. as well, and he’s proven himself to be quite serious, and frankly I don’t think anyone who says this music is a joke is really listening. Oh, it’s meant to be funny alright, but it’s not the sort of thing that gets tossed off over the course of a week or whatever. It’s way too complex, dense, and fluid for that; music this fun doesn’t come easy. You can imagine Deacon sitting on fifty takes of “The Crystal Cat”, each seeking out that perfect blend of mania and joy that the album version manages to capture. The computerized banjo plucking of “Pink Batman” is actually quite beautiful; this is as low-key as Deacon gets, and even then it’s sitting at like 400 BPM. Though I feel as of now this is probably his worst album (at least, of his commercially available ones – Bromst, America, and Gliss Riffer each up the bar on what you get here), it’s a real joy to come back to. The one-two punch of “Crystal Cat” and “Wham City” is still astounding – “Wham City” is one of those epic, monumental pieces that on first listen will make you wonder how the hell he’s ever going to top it (I think “America” does, for what that’s worth). The downside is that outside of the final few minutes of “Jimmy Joe Roche” the rest of the disc doesn’t quite live up to it. Instead you get a Deaconized take on rock n’ roll (“Okie Dokie”) and funk (“Snake Mistakes”), plus a xylophone piece that’s refreshingly straightforward (“Big Milk”). All this is worth hearing of course, but those two songs tower over everything.
Electronic music in general is such an exciting frontier since it opens up so many possibilities. With every sound readily available to be sampled and sequencers able to play things that no human ever could, music really is only limited by the imagination these days. So much of the seminal electronic music of the late 80’s and early 90’s was driven by restriction – there were only so many beats and sounds you could make, so you had to make due with whatever you had. Since then there have been new advances in technology every year and yet the general form of this music remains the same – so much these days sounds like Kraftwerk or 808 State or OMD with a new coat of paint, to the point where bands are willingly handicapping themselves in order to stay creative. Even though Dan Deacon also has his own set of restrictions (he once claimed that most of his gear came from dumpsters, and I for one believe him), it’s rare to see anyone so open to creating something truly unbounded like this; sure, we can crank every single knob to the maximum now and it’s easy to rig a computer up to play every song on an Aerosmith album at once, but who exactly is willing to work in that space?