Dan Deacon is angry. After years of shows that have celebrated community and the joyous moment of a collective adrenaline rush, the Baltimore native is feeling a little less pep in his step as his third album makes its way out into the world. Now streaming over at NPR, America is something quite different to its predecessors, moving towards classical acoustic instrumentation and grand gestures, while still retaining the pointillist approach to composition heard on Bromst. While Deacon has never been one short on ambition – Bromst itself was a complex and unique piece of work – America takes the biscuit as far as sheer scope goes. It is an ebullient look at Deacon’s own place in society, bristling with passion, fear, confusion, loathing and love. In parts, it is as dense and maximal as anything he’s done in the past but Deacon has also opened up new spaces, isolating rhythms and melodies in ways he has never before attempted. It doesn’t always work but it shows signs of a composer working through his own habits and the history of the tradition he finds himself a part of.
The title, that big neon sign of a title, acknowledges that tradition. America – the country, the idea – is a complex beast, with a tangled web of history and a present day that boggles the mind. As Deacon well knows, every set of ears that hears this title will have their own set of references, their own subconscious reactions, their own interpretations of what the word means. This, he says, is all part of the plan.
“Everyone in the world knows the word America,” he says. “And to every single one of those people, there are connotations to that word; they see it positively or negatively, heroic or tragic, good or evil, or a mixture of all those together. There’s not a single person who thinks about America the same as somebody else. The word itself is controversial. I didn’t pick it because it was controversial, I picked it because I think it was summing up the juxtapositions that the record is. I wanted a word that everyone knew and everyone would go into with this mindset. I knew that was a risk and I knew I was risking disenfranchising people. I don’t want it to come across as a nationalist record, I don’t want it to come across as me being like, ‘AMERICA, FUCK YEAH! COMING TO SAVE THE…”, you know what I mean?”
Instead of historical figures or grand ideas, Deacon roots his America in the soil. The environment is key, from social geography to the diverse landscape he has seen criss-crossing the States on his tours. The A side, made up of five standard length tracks, locates itself within cities, specifically Baltimore and the places that Deacon has felt close to there. The B side, the epic four-piece suite titled ‘USA’, concerns itself with the open road, the landscape and the ways in which humans have gone about taking and exploiting the wildness of nature, with often disastrous results.
“I tend to see a dystopian future when I look off into the distance, I have a hard time not seeing the hills burning and smoke pouring out of buildings and I’m very influenced by the book ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy,” he says.
“The lyrics are my negative feelings about the culture that I am a part of and how it affects me and how I affect it. Things like the destruction of the environment, the huge rise of corporate culture and that goes globally – it’s not like you Irish are getting out of that one so easy! Global war. All of these things. I exist in this world. I’m a part of it. Everything I come in contact with has some tainted exploitation. My need for technology and comfort makes that globally acceptable.”
Despite burying most of his lyrics in noise and controlled chaos as usual, the title is enough to plant the seeds of political thought in the mind of the listener and the idea is enough. Deacon revels in conspiracy theories and his imagination often runs away with him. That’s not to suggest that his fears are based in hard facts, but where his mind ends up can often be quite a leap and his ambitions for the future are surprisingly simple.
“I think when you see the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring and the student protest movement in Montreal and the massive protests in Spain and in Greece, you start to realise like, there is a return to the age of kings, kings are starting to reap in the wealth. I tend to get lost in thoughts like that a lot,” he says.
“I see there’s two futures that I think might be emerging around us,” he continues, running with the idea. “One is a return to an age of kings, where there’s more overt, more rigidly structured feudalism. The other is where we actually start to stop thinking about things like class and people on different scales. I know this sounds so hippy-dippy, and that I’m like painting a flower tie-dye or something like that, but come on, get real. I’d like to see an age where ideas that are expressed in documents like the Magna Carta or the Declaration of Independence are actually fulfilled and utilised. That we actually don’t exploit people for other people’s benefits or comfort, where everyone actually is treated equally. I know in saying that, it sounds so lofty and stupid and privileged to just even think it.”
While Deacon’s vision of the perfect future can come across like a fabled return to innocence, he isn’t suggesting that we all dump our laptops and head for the open land to start sowing crops.
“I would be a terrible farmer!” he admits. “I don’t want to rip up the pages of the system and throw them in the air and start thrashing, I don’t think that makes any sense. I think systems have emerged in every culture that seem pretty parallel in regards to how societies work. I think within the idea of capitalism, and how capitalism is the current dominant global system, there are certainly things that are out of whack and disproportionate and it’s impossible not to say that there is not an imbalance in wealth and a large percentage of that wealth was made through the exploitation of others. But, at the same time, there are certain aspects that do make sense. Everyone shouldn’t be a farmer, everyone shouldn’t be making their own shoes or their own clothes, people can make clothes and trade them for food, people can make fuel and trade it for housing, that does make sense.”
Drawing on the influence of independent American activist and politician, Ralph Nader, Deacon is deeply troubled by the inverse state of fair pay and the chronically unfair position of migrant workers in the US, especially the case of tomato farm workers, as outlined in Barry Estabrook’s book-length indictment of industrial agriculture, Tomatoland.
“We shouldn’t be paying the custodian insanely less than the people who do office work in the same office that gets cleaned, because the office requires that the office be cleaned. It does require a specific skill-set and it’s one of the jobs that is least desired so it should be paid more,” he says. “Holy shit, no one wants to be the janitor, why the hell don’t we pay the janitor more? We don’t want to do it at all! It looks like the worst fucking job in the world! Everybody wants to fucking play baseball, why the fuck do we pay them so much? You look at the music industry and it’s like, so many people get paid so much fucking money and all they do is have great publicists. I’m not saying hard work shouldn’t be rewarded, I guess what I am saying is that we shouldn’t have actual slaves and pretend like we don’t. We shouldn’t be upset when migrant workers come across borders to do work, when we set up a system that requires them.”
A long rant about persecution of Mexican immigrants, right-wing extremists and the origin of the United States ensues. “Anyway,” he concludes, “I sound like a psychopath whenever I do interviews.”
“But the music isn’t about all that,” he says, gathering his thoughts. “The lyrics aren’t about that either. The lyrics are written from the perspective of someone who lives in today’s society and is horrified by it and also depressed that they are, directly and indirectly, responsible for a lot of the things that they wish were different in the world and trying to coming to come to terms with how to be a part of that system.”The music remains central to the whole enterprise. This is the form Deacon’s subtle protest has taken and one he believes is desperately short on activism right now. Compared to the glory days of protest singers in the 60s, he sees a lack of courage and effort among the pop stars of today.
“Look how important music was in shaping American opinion of the Vietnam war,” he says. “It was massively important. John Lennon, probably the most famous pop musician ever, was deported from the United States for being so openly vocal against the war. He had a whole tour cancelled because of his outspoken political views. Where are the musicians of today who are doing that? You can just buy carbon credits and give a peace sign at your concert and expect the world to actually change and for you not to be seen as just another puppet of the super rich.”
But the music world has changed significantly in the forty years or more since the peak of pop activism. These days, media channels with the power to reach masses are more strictly controlled than ever, and this is something Deacon has to acknowledge.
“Again, I’m a conspiracy theory nut but I don’t think it’s that outlandish to think that people went out of their way to make protest music unpopular or to not steer it in the direction it was, to not give it the radio play it needed, to not give it the attention it got around the time of the Vietnam war,” he says. “I don’t think there was a round-table with the presidents and the generals who were like ‘We gotta stop these protest songs!’ but it just doesn’t exist today. It’s not like there’s not a need for it, it’s not like there’s not a place for it.”
“One of the main things musicians were railing against was the military-industrial complex and capitalism itself. They couldn’t continue to fuel that fire and profit from it. I think they realised that it would eventually catch on so they had to do something dismantle it. I mean, we can’t have a band like U2 pretending to tote around and be the political band of our time. That’s just insane. You can’t just buy carbon credits and say it’s all ok when you fly around in your jet and tour Europe with 200 semis. Give me a break.”
America is out now on Domino Records. You can stream it in its entirety over on NPR.