Dan Deacon probably had a vision of making an accessible album when he sat down to do Gliss Riffer. The first half of the record plays to the cheap seats, with slices of catchy, hummable melodies and baldly commercial vocals seemingly designed for maximum pop appeal. This isn’t shocking—Deacon has always been a populist, especially in his live shows—but it still feels a bit off-putting to hear the first single, “Feel The Lightning,” come across like the love child of Daft Punk and Todd Rundgren. But Deacon just can’t help being himself; he’s a restless, high-strung artist, and by the time the album closer, “Steely Blues,” fades away in a washed-out haze of Swans-like intensity, the artistic intent is clear: It’s not a pop album, and it’s not an art-damaged experiment; it’s the sound of Dan Deacon finding himself.
Much like America, Gliss Riffer has a natural progression. It’s an eight-song musical journey that goes from one end of his subject to the other. But whereas that album went expansive, addressing the state of one of the largest imaginable subjects, the new one turns inward. It begins in the surface-level pleasures of “Lightning,” then slowly works its way down into the inner life and anxieties of an individual, before coming to a close in the wordless expression of emotional uncertainty captured by the final track. It’s just as ambitious as its predecessor, but with an inverted subject. It aspires to be the Darkness On The Edge Of Town to America’s Born To Run.
“Sheathed Wings” is probably the closest Deacon comes here to a “True Thrush.” It’s a high-speed adrenaline rush, with a hooky vocal lead and frenetic breakbeat rhythm. The following track, “When I Was Done Dying,” is a 3/4 groove with a swinging waltz feel that’s paired with the usual busy drums, but adds Deacon’s clearest emotional stream of consciousness yet. From there, it just delves deeper into the individual psyche—probably Deacon’s own, but who’s to say? “Meme Generator” has a mood reminiscent of mid-’90s British electronica, referencing acts like The Future Sound Of London and The Orb, ditching the vocals for mere scattered vocal noises as though Deacon is clearing his throat. Which is fitting, because the next song, “Mind On Fire,” finds Deacon launching into soaring pleas, yearning and unsettled. By the time it breaks into the bridge, with Deacon repeating, “Time is my life, and I have no time, and I’m still alive,” it’s ready to burst—which it does, to wonderful effect.
The last three tracks are all over the map. “Learning To Relax” seems like the most explicitly autobiographical, and it returns to the pop pleasures of the album opener. It’s a pulsing ’80s Britpop bass bounce, with vocals that owe as much to Pulp and ELO as they do to Kraftwerk. It continues the theme of yearning that suffuses the record: “Just take me out of my mind,” Deacon begs, with a compressed vocal melody that hides its naked emotion in layers of reverb, before losing its nerve and returning to Deacon’s more familiar, higher-pitched patter. Like many of the tracks, it hits a breakdown around the halfway point and flies into a repetitive, speedy groove. The final two tracks abandon the yearning vocals and pop flourishes, as though Deacon has tapped into some part of himself deeper than his influences and his musical past. They feel like a subconscious inner core, or a skeletal frame that underlies the songs that came before. “Take It To The Max” is all glitchy minimalist pops and peals, until a back half that marries it to a John Carpenter score. “Steely Blues” ends in sound-wave expanse and drone.
Gliss Riffer offers some of the purest pop pleasures Deacon has done, yet they’re fused to an album that comes across as deeply anxious and unsettled, a mixture that makes for a fractious listening experience. There’s much to recommend here, but it’s in fits and spurts—a record that comes across as dissatisfied with itself. There’s always another note to tweak, another bridge to add, further places to explore. But those places are all inside Dan Deacon, and he’s taking us along. It’s a worthwhile trip, but it makes for a bumpy ride.