Album Review: Dan Deacon - 'Gliss Riffer' (Domino Recording Co., 2015)

Dan Deacon continues his signature mixture of the layered and cerebral with the infectious and fun on his new album Gliss Riffer.

Depending on how you write about Dan Deacon, he can either appear overly cerebral and pretentious or childish and goofy. This is no fault of Dan Deacon or his music; it is as playful as it is intense, as interested in ressurecting and exploring sonic influences ranging from the early avant-garde psychedelic homebrew electronic music of Bruce Haack to the studied and cerebral orchestral music of Edgard Varese to the taughtly-layered repetitive cycling minimalism of Steve Reich to the woozy proggy retro psych rock of Tame Impala to the more outre infectious bubblegum pop of Carly Rae Jepson.

(Of the latter, he once released one of the most wildly transformed remixes I have ever heard.) He names albums things as frivolous as Spiderman of the Rings to the stern and cerebral-sounding Bromst and America.

And just take a gander at his track names and album art, both of which swing equally as wildly between the goofy and the intense.

The worry, of course, is that these things might be an affect. It makes us as an audience anxious to see those kinds of things mashed up next to each other; we worry about whether it is an affect, something constructed and utterly false, a pretense thrown up to impress us instead of move us, something completely artificial as opposed to a kind of authentic and real set of thoughts and feelings that needed to be expressed.

This is the taint of irony and, worse, post-irony.

It would be easy to blame this wariness on modern post-ironic spaces like Clickhole, Weird Twitter, and other similar bastions of web culture, or to go a little further back at the more purely and obviously ironic.

Because that's what irony is; it's a put-on, a farce, a thing playing up its own absurdity and stupidity for a laugh.

But Dan Deacon isn't ironic. When you hear, when you put aside the more immediate associations of reviewers offering workman-like fastidious lists of influences and tensions, what you get is something sincerely playful. He can throw songs through weirding processes of electronic manipulation, warbling woozy psychedelia (notes bending in and out of tune, slipping in directions that at first feel counterintuitive), dragging and scraping and mutating his own tunes just like he did to Jepsen's, but they never loose a sense of sugary, infectious sincerity. And not the kind of overtly emotive sincerity that is the bread and butter of more confessional music (no slight intended); it's a simple and messy but totally sincere thing.

On paper, it can seem overwhelming, the idea of someone wielding in a serious way influences of the 20th century avant-garde and contemporary classical music world and ideas of the usage of synthesizers that stem as much from the days when a Moog was the size of a room and had to be personally installed by their creator in universities, who were the only ones who could afford them, as they do from the world of pop roaming from the indie to the synth to the mainstream. It could be a recipe for overwrought pretentious disaster.

But it isn't. It isn't at all.

This is due in large part to Dan Deacon's focus on the necessary mechanics of songwriting. His sense of tunefulness is ever-present; what he draws from pop is both its bubbly energy as well its direct, powerful, and catchy melodies. His sense of rhythm never wavers; this is where his 20th century contemporary classic influences shine brightest, seeing the power of slowly building incredibly dense and propulsive rhythms off of simple cycling layers, not unlike how a hip-hop built gradual builds from layered samples and composed lines. His sense of harmony to flesh out melodies continuous refreshes his already infectious melodies; he taps into both his understanding of pop and experimental music in this regard, dose the cycling rhythms with melodies carefully crafted to almost automatically generate their own harmonies, growing richer and denser with each additional layer.

And it's on top of all of this that he plays as an active performer, manipulating his own vocals, bending notes of a line to lock in or swerve out of the established melodies and harmonies. He fuses his pop, experimental, avant-garde, and progressive influences through studious, deliberate work, but he never lets that sap a piece's vivaciousness.

It's a difficult thing, balancing the Dionysian overflowering joy of play with an understanding of the brass tacks of the mechanics of music and why we find it compelling.

It's easy to imagine Deacon either spending hours charting out ideas, mapping things down to the last detail, or just as easily riffing and improvising and collating what he finds.

One doesn't get the sense that his technical ability and understanding have swamped the necessary spirit of music and art.

This album doesn't reinvent Dan Deacon's work. The sonic palette isn't wildly different. And it's a little less intense, both in its pop and its more cerebral pieces, as his previous album America.

But, as one can judge from both the nonsense name Gliff Riffer and the album art, this is a lighter record. It still meshes sounds and ideas borrowed from harsh realms like noise and the avant-garde, but the vocals are closer to the top, and the production on this record is more song-focused than sound-focused, burying and balancing layers to create a lush and full-bodied song as opposed to an overwhelming, ever-shifting kaleidoscope of programmatic sound.

In this way, it offers a kind of progression for Deacon and a deepening of a subtler kind of technical acumen.

He's never had an issue with creating compelling material that balances the cerebral with the playful, but he's learning to dial down what before would have been a manic joy into something just a little gentler, a little mellower.

The album art, depicting a cartoon creature that is a giant hand with a face collapsed on the ground, long pink tongued rolled out and wrapped around one of its polka-dotted legs, gives a good sense of some other influences brought to bear.

These songs, not unlike Dan Deacon's previous material, feel like they could be used to score a children's show, a cartoon, an anime; or, perhaps a bit more darkly, the kind of heavily mutated material rich with half-buried morbid psychedelia like Superjail or Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!.

It's hard not to miss the fevered mania in his earlier work, especially on America, but the spirit is still there, the intellect, the playfulness, the joy, the wild fun.

Image taken from Amazon's listing of the album.