Dan Deacon – Mystic Familiar

From that very first moment, 'Mystic Familiar' envelops you in its world.
Label: Domino
Released: 31st January 2020
Rating: ★★★★

There aren’t many people doing what Dan Deacon is doing. His only other close contemporary doing things on the same scale is Anna Meredith; a similarly conservatory-trained musician who finds joy in the maximalist avant-garde. But where Meredith opted to weave much of her classical, formal training into her works, Deacon seemed to have sacked that off altogether.

Instead, much of Deacon’s work has been informed by his ska and avant-garde jazz past. His first studio album, 2007’s ‘Spiderman of the Rings’, felt like witnessing a man trying to hammer one hundred different plugs into one hundred different sockets (which is probably an accurate assumption, given his live sets). It was hard to find any rhyme or reason to it, but it was cacophonous, colourful and carefree; a direct link to your dopamine centre.

As he grew, so did his sound. Filling out, become more nuanced and mature. His 2009 follow-up, ‘Bromst’, saw Deacon reach out, both to other creatives and to other areas of music. It resulted in what would be his most rewarding album. But what Deacon rarely ever did was present his natural voice. Throughout his four studio albums, Deacon hid behind layer upon layer of distortion; vocoder put through a pedal put through a synth put through whatever else he had lying around. With ‘Mystic Familiar’, we finally get a glimpse of the real Deacon. And it is magical.

‘Become A Mountain’ is such a perfect way to introduce this new era. Piano lines build and build, soaring higher and higher, revealing Deacon’s conservatory training, as he whispers in a voice somewhere between Frank Black and Wayne Coyne. Our first experience of his actual voice; vulnerable and human. Then, as the horns explode, the song ascends past the peaks of the mountain, through the clouds and into a heavenly realm. It’s a thrilling opening and unlike anything Deacon has ever done, but rooted in that colourful maximalist charm that makes his better work so transfixing.

Much of ‘Mystic Familiar’ follows this same format. It has the same celebratory chaos of ‘Spiderman of the Rings’ but with a lot more technical proficiency. It no longer feels like someone twisting knobs and smashing buttons until the sounds feels right. From the use of Andrew Bernstein’s saxophone on ‘Arp III: Far From Shore’, a ghostly squeal that leads into a motorik beat, to the synths that evoke the feeling of being underwater while the sun dances across the surface on “Fell Into The Ocean”, everything is carefully considered.

From that very first moment, ‘Mystic Familiar’ envelops you in its world. It feels like a truly complete Deacon album. His previous ones, even the more conceptual ‘America’, were more disparate. Here, with a thematic through-line of ageing and coping with seismic changes, this maximalist creation is brought into focus. It’s most obvious in its central ‘Arp’, but by the time you reach the kaleidoscopic chiptune fest of ‘Bumble Bee Crown King’, it’s clear that this is Deacon reckoning with everything that has come before.

Deacon has always been a playful musician, someone completely and utterly bored with the ordinary. There’s always been this feeling that, if he’s not making someone dance, smile, laugh or find their own world in his music, then he’s failed. ‘Mystic Familiar’ succeeds in doing all of those things. As playful, exciting, transcendent and thought-provoking as anything prior, but with a lot more openness, it feels like a wonderful new evolution for a restless artist. It’s been a long time since the days of hammering plugs into sockets, but the sheer thrill of experimentation and exploration is still going strong.

Chris Taylor

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