Album Review: Dan Deacon - Gliss Riffer

Album Reviews
Gerrit Feenstra

Dan Deacon has one dynamic range: massive. Loud, soft, euphoric, cacophonous, it doesn't matter -- what Dan Deacon does is at full blast, whatever the knob at hand may be. There are intimidating levels of passion and conviction in every second of his recordings, with or without any vocals attached. It's for this reason that it seemed such an obvious fit for Arcade Fire to pick Deacon as the only Reflektor tour opener who played every date. Deacon is a man with a mind on fire. We've known that well to be true since 2007's excellent Spiderman of the Rings, the record which many consider to be Deacon's first big breakthrough on the scene. But with 2012's America, Dan started a new chapter, signing to Domino and emerging on larger platform, ready to take on the world. Where America was a heavy, challenging, and ultimately very rewarding social commentary, Deacon's second Domino LP, Gliss Riffer, drops this week, and it takes things inside, bringing an explosion of joy amidst personal trial in the most overwhelmingly euphoric way possible. Grab some headphones and be aurally flooded with Dan Deacon's mind on caffeinated happiness.


I'll go ahead and say it on the record: "Feel The Lightning" is the best summation of the human experience recorded in recent pop music history. Dan Deacon kicks off Gliss Riffer with more than a bit to chew - there are so many themes at hand here. There is the euphoria of living into the moment, the worry that cripples us when we face the future, and the warm nostalgia of the past that we pick through carefully to feed our best interests before worry and fear of failure cripple us once again. Dan handles all the vocals, high, low, and everywhere in between like all three ghosts of Christmas in one freaky omnipresent, bearded dude. The warm pop track is heavy on the downbeats, easily danceable, and a bit deceptive in terms of its joyous sound. But from the get go, even in the melancholy lyrics, Gliss Riffer starts with a very important message: everything changes, and you have to deal with it. It's on that foundation that the rest of the record operates.


"Sheathed Wings" nods back to Spiderman-era Deacon with its madcap synth rock antics. The track is chaos put to a 4/4 beat in ways that might intimidate label-mates Animal Collective. It's here that the euphoria explored on the opener is unchained and given superpowers for fun. Dan notes here that when doubt leaves our minds, there is nothing stopping us from drinking our fill of the spoils of life. "When we see the lake we dive all the way", he screams on the chorus in an explosion of realization. The chains of anxiety and self-doubt are only there as long as we want to see them. It's this same concept that Deacon expands to a death metaphor on "When I Was Done Dying". Here, Dan is a roller coaster of emotions, seeing both the highest highs and life flashing before his eyes within 10 second intervals. It's a beautifully overwhelming exercise in extremes that gives the listener a story for the Dan Deacon legends. As the marimba clanks and the saw synths fade in and out, it's hard not to tear up at Dan's brilliant conviction here. It's such a tongue-in-cheek story (it involves space, goddesses, unicorns, caves, and other awesome shit), but the struggle at hand is so relatable. The adventure is out there waiting to be had - all it takes is the bravery and confidence to make it happen.

This up and down struggle combusts in "Mind on Fire". There are more explosive synth rainbows and epic Dan Deacon screams that you wish you could have soundtracking your daily frustrations. "Time is my life and I have no time and I'm still alive", Dan sings over and over again in a robotic, programmed voice. We are told by everything around us that we are on the clock, but we are also still alive, and we need to embrace the organic part of the clockwork orange. "Learning To Relax" rounds that idea out perfectly with the album's most textbook Dan Deacon pop offering. "Just take me out of my mind", Deacon begs, as the drum machines pound in syncopated glory and the synthesizers are all set on interstellar. Looks like even the creative geniuses among us tend to lean towards escapism as the best plausible attack strategy. And with the modern state of communication, the Internet, and the endless flashing screens telling you that you have an endless list of things to worry about, how could we not?



Gliss Riffer is made up of five experimental pop songs and three instrumentals. The first of these instrumentals is "Meme Generator", a well deserved intermission after the record's pitch perfect opening trio and before the explosive duality of "Mind on Fire" (it's title is also a clever nod to our digital inability to express emotion effectively). The other two both come at the end of the madness, after "Learning To Relax" fades, and they take up more than a third of the record's total time. Together, "Take It To The Max", and "Steely Blues" really form one song, not altogether unlike the way the America suite ends America. But the energy break isn't only a sonic one - it's also very thematic. "Take It To The Max", with all its off-kilter timing and staccato patterns, is a tinkering track. You could almost see it soundtracking the part of the spy movie where the main character is stuck in the middle of the case and is just thinking, spinning their wheels to try and think of something brilliant to move forward again. The track builds and builds into a cyclone of swirling sounds until the listener feels dizzy, then it fades and gives way to the zen ambience of "Steely Blues". The latter builds on many of the same cyclical structures, but blending the staccato together with reverb to make it all much more fluid. It's almost as if after all of the up and down of the records first six tracks, it's time to take a step back and see the cogs in motion. "Steely Blues" tends towards chaos, but you watch it from enough of a distance that it all makes some strange amount of sense.

It's here in these last two tracks that Gliss Riffer finds nirvana and earns its obscure title. "Gliss" is a reference to glissando, the musical technique of sliding in the non-western musical space between two well defined notes. Using the frequencies in between these notes is bizarre enough to earn it's own term, and they are never heard in isolation from the glissando slide unless you are just playing out of tune. Thus, riffing on this motion, if you will, is a sonic roller coaster - always up and down between two places of comfort and never quite in the right place at the right time. I don't think there's a better way to define the anxiety at hand on Deacon's newest record. It's what sets your mind on fire with passion and desire for something good but drives you to incessant indecision based on fear and trembling. It's a struggle that many of us have to deal with, and thankfully, Deacon has given us a beautiful picture of the struggle in Gliss Riffer. But the listener shouldn't forget the important of those last two tracks. After all the chaos and the excitement and the ups and downs, take a step back, see the process for what it is, and find the joy in the beautiful moments of flux that we all get to experience together.

Gliss Riffer is out this week on Domino. Grab it on CD or vinyl at your local record store! Catch Dan Deacon live at Neumos on Friday, May 8! Prince Rama is opening, so that's two killer shows for the price of one. Grab tickets here.

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