By Calum Marsh | 9 March 2009
Political theorist and literary critic Fredric Jameson classifies postmodernism and postmodern art as essentially schizophrenic. He’s not arguing that postmodern artists are literally schizophrenic in any kind of psychologically-classifiable way (in fact he notes that his understanding of schizophrenia is limited and quite possibly mistaken, and I’ll just interject right now that I’m in the same boat). For him these artists experience the world in a very specific and unusual way: the “schizophrenic experience,” he writes in Postmodernism And Consumer Society, “is an experience of isolated, disconnected, discontinuous material signifiers which fail to link up into a coherent sequence.” Enter Dan Deacon and his clusterfuck of a new album, Bromst, a textbook case of Jameson’s schizophrenia. Here’s what Jameson has to say about the schizophrenic’s life: “[It is] by no means a pleasant experience.” Uh huh. Same goes for Bromst.
In his review of last year’s self-titled Crystal Castles LP, Conrad chastised the band’s refusal to flesh songs out past the two minute mark, arguing that “there are plenty of interesting ideas here, but if the Crystal Castles don’t seem interested in exploring them, why should we?” Fair enough. But clocking in at well over an hour, Deacon’s Bromst suffers from the opposite problem: any interesting ideas are nullified by their exhaustion, any glimmers of brilliance (there are a small few) dulled and darkened by sheer overuse. Consider how most of these songs pass the six minute mark, with its longest hitting over eight. Not to get too caught up in duration alone, but this is a very serious issue with the album. Here we see the often-resourceful Deacon approaching a big canvas with too little paint, and the result is a record which feels bloated, overlong, and ultimately empty.
Put succinctly, Dan Deacon is annoying as fuck. Spiderman ex-pats will recall that record’s what-the-fuck opening track, “Woody Woodpecker,” maybe the most off-putting album opener since Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (2005). There are about five moments on Bromst that are considerably more irritating than “Woody,” most notably the grating dentist drill at the beginning of “Red F” and pretty much all of “Wet Wings.” When the album reaches these moments I find it very difficult to restrain myself from changing that 49% above to a straight-up zero, but mercifully they’re infrequent and brief. Still, I’m full of questions: why even do this annoying shit? Doesn’t this guy have his masters in music theory or something? Does it matter? Is it possible that his formal education is cited by critics as a way of legitimizing bad records? What, really, does all of this bio-regurgitating context—his formal training, his Baltimore roots, the Wham City scene and his role within it—tell us about Dan Deacon’s music? How can it possibly explain why Bromst just isn’t a good record?
Here’s a funny and telling anecdote: I used to promote shows pretty regularly, and at one point I agreed to a show with Dan Deacon—had it confirmed, ready to go, everything. Then, about two weeks before the date of the show, I got an email from his booking agent telling me Dan wouldn’t be playing any of his Canadian dates “due to ID issues.” A few weeks later, I was talking to the band Parts & Labor after a show I’d put on for them and Dan Deacon’s name came up—apparently they were friends with him. I mentioned that I’d had this show booked with him but that it was canceled due to these ambiguous ID issues. “ID issues?” the Parts & Labor guys exclaimed, “Dan Deacon doesn’t have ID. Dude lives off the grid.” Huh.
I think this says a lot about Dan Deacon and his confounding rise to indie fame. Here’s a guy who apparently “lives off the grid,” whatever that means, and suddenly he’s signed to a successful booking agency and has people from record labels, publicity groups, and so on all working for him, expecting him to go on a proper, legitimate tour like a regular musician. Imagine him explaining to his booking agency that he can’t file for a work permit to play in Canada because he “lives off the grid.”
A year later Dan Deacon plays Canada and elsewhere sans problems. He probably pays taxes. He’s back on the grid. Are to we believe that maybe Dan Deacon has reigned in his wackiness and tamed his eccentricities in favor of regularity and a normal music career? Well, no: Bromst is exactly as goofy and messy and totally bizarre as Spiderman Of The Rings or anything that came before it. I guess he’s still crazy. Which, to get back to Bromst, is maybe the problem: Deacon’s always so busy trying to cram everything in that he’s never able to keep it all together. Take “Woof Woof,” distant cousin of Spiderman‘s “Crystal Cat,” at once this record’s best and worst track: an infectious vocal melody and catchy guitar line are completely obfuscated by the twenty-five other layers blaring or nattering on in the fore- and background at all times, preventing what could have been a successful foray into Animal Collective territory.
Speaking of “Woof Woof,” here’s one last gripe: Dan Deacon needs to stop modifying his vocal tracks. The whiny alter-ego which pops up here and elsewhere—you may recall that it nearly ruined “The Crystal Cat” and others back on Spiderman—is the most fucking annoying thing ever. At its best this voice is abrasive; at its worst it is distressingly similar to Crazy Frog. Despite it “Crystal Cat” remains a very good song, but I maintain its success was a fluke. That track’s success hinged on its pop sensibility, which is to say that it was well-structured and didn’t get out of control. Unfortunately, this side of Deacon—a side with a sense of brevity, control, and order—appears nowhere on Bromst.