Dan Deacon's new album is titled "America" (Domino). Nothing like aiming high: It's a song cycle on what it means to be a citizen of a troubled democracy, and you can dance to it. The classically trained Deacon works with an orchestra, merges it with his own array of hand-me-down keyboards and electronics, and then tops it off with some of the most ambitious lyrics of a career primarily focused on instrumental music.
"America" addresses an era pulled apart by radical extremes: the Tea Party and Occupy movements. But this album is as much of a personal reckoning as a political one. Deacon says that several years ago his apathy was overwhelming; he was convinced that he could do nothing to change the status quo. So, with no future around the corner and thoughts of Apocalypse dancing in his head, he was content to drop out and party, as Prince once said, like it's 1999.
He felt powerless in "a so-called democracy that is waging wars in the name of protecting me and my country and my way of life." But in the last few years, he says, he's snapped out of it.
"I've never had faith in government, but like it or not I'm in this system, and if I don't actively try to do something about it, I'm part of the problem," he says. "The United States has a crazy nonunified history. North, South -- each region has a completely different history. The expansion from East to West, you get a different viewpoint from each angle. You could say America took this country or America made this country, and both ideas could be true. It goes constantly back and forth."
So in contrast to the rave-like celebration of "Bromst," his 2009 album, Deacon went deeper on "America." The music encompasses classical themes and avant-garde textures – not unexpected for a Baltimore-based composer and musician who is regarded as a rising star on the contemporary classical scene and has scored a film for Francis Ford Coppola ("Twixt" in 2011). But there's also a greater emphasis on narrative; the bleak viewpoints on ecological and political carnage shared on the first half of the album turn to hope, even awe, about the natural beauty of the land on the second.
"People can't argue abut that: The land of the U.S. is beautiful and inspiring," Deacon says. "It's something to be proud of. And the other side is how is this going to exist? I wanted to frame these ideas in an inspirational mind set. Not just false hope or blind optimism. When depressed, I write music that makes me feel uplifted or empowered or gives me reason to celebrate. I think my music has had that trait for the last three albums. With the lyrics, I wanted to ground those issues, to make people think. There is a song from the Baltimore club scene, 'Dance My Pain Away,' about a person who is broken and despairing and yet people are dancing to it. John Lennon created a dialogue with his music. What does he mean, 'War is over if you want it?' It was overt, but it almost bypassed the issue and brought it back to the person interacting with his work."
And that's where this journey through "America" ends, with Deacon's final wish on the album: "Hope I get it right tomorrow."
"What I hope this album will do is spur questions," he says. "Because that is what is happening in my life right now -- questioning my realities. It's hard for me view the future in a utopian sense. What can I do to change that? What can I do to change me that isn't going to make it worse for anyone else? How can I change my reality so that I am not contributing to the destruction of the earth?"
In concert, the weight of those questions is distributed among artist and audience and turned into something of a celebration, a we-can-do-this-together vibe. At a Deacon show, the fans are as much a part of the experience as the guy leading the band.
"The first time I ever did any audience interaction, I had to," he says. "I was playing in a basement club in New York, around 2004, and it was one of the first shows I was doing that was packed, about 50 people, which for me at the time was a lot. Everyone was dancing like crazy and then the power blew, except for one ceiling light. I realized that if I don't keep the audience in that moment, I was going to lose the show. Everyone was in a circle, and I created a dance contest. I came up with all these convoluted rules. It worked, it kept everyone in the room until the power went back on.
"The whole context of the performance had shifted, and it shifted something in my mind. I started thinking the audience took over the performance, and the whole room changed. There was no front row or back row because everyone was facing the center of the room when I did this contest. So it got me thinking about more ways to create these audience-interaction situations. I started thinking of the audience as another compositional element. How important is the crowd to a performance? Ultimately, the crowd is the performance. If the band is great and the audience sucks, the show sucks. There is not one without the other. An audience is just a mob and a performer is just a roaming narcissist without the other."