This piece was originally published on the 23rd of February 2015 by The 405. This version has been only slightly revised. My previous record reviews for The 405 concerned artists and/or albums with which I was already besotted, so reviewing Gliss Riffer was a big deal for me because I wasn’t all that familiar with Dan Deacon’s work beforehand. I had listened to, and enjoyed, America, his previous album, but I wouldn’t have called myself a huge fan of his. I did, however, want to improve my music writing by reviewing at least on album a month in 2015 (not a lot of work, I’ll grant you, but did have to juggle it with university), so when the editor offered this album around, I thought I’d attempt to write about an artist with which I was not entirely familiar. On the whole, it was a worthwhile exercise (especially when it came to the research), and I think this review stands today as a pretty good one. Being more mixed on a record for the first time in a review definitely helped my critical acuity, which is no bad thing.
Peruse, if you will, the press release that accompanied the announcement of Dan Deacon’s Gliss Riffer late last year. You’ll notice that our attention is frequently and unambiguously guided towards the role this record is intended to play within his body of work. That is, beyond being the Baltimore-based electronic musician’s fourth studio album (and second released by Domino Records), Gliss Riffer has the great distinction of being his Most Personal Album Yet™. According to the promotional literature, this is evidenced by the fact that Deacon has, for the first time since his 2006 breakthrough Spiderman of the Rings, recorded and produced an album in solitude rather than with the ensembles behind his previous two albums, Bromst and America. Further, the press release stresses the importance of both Deacon’s vocals, which have been consciously emphasised within his typically opaque mix, and his lyrics, which supposedly confront the angst of modern life. And so, because the press really does rely on this material, the seed has been planted and the narrative circulated: Gliss Riffer is the product of Dan Deacon bearing his soul more directly than ever.
Then again, you needn’t have read the promotional spiel to recognise that, for better or worse, Gliss Riffer is the most characteristically ‘Dan Deacon’ record that Dan Deacon has released. It pretty much exclusively operates in the mode of vivid, ecstatically deranged electronic music that most of us have come to love and expect from Deacon at this point. In fact, considering how hard the press release hammers home the idea that this album reflects the pure, undiluted vision of The Artist, I was in one sense disappointed to discover the myriad similarities it shared with his prior work. Where Bromst was clearly the product of experimentation and a new recording process, and America concluded with a four-part suite – the most surprising manifestation of his compositional background yet – Gliss Riffer is bereft of any dramatic departures from the Dan Deacon playbook. So does it represent something of a retreat? Arguably; it’s in no way a record wrought by a pioneering spirit, that’s for sure. This should, however, not be read as inherently bad; more than anything, Gliss Riffer appears to be the result of Deacon attempting to extend his range as a songwriter, while also returning to the more simplistic production process behind his earlier work as a means of refining his characteristic sound. And, as such, it’s moderately successful.
Primarily, this is because the accentuation of Deacon’s voice has resulted in the most accessible collection of songs he’s yet released. It’s certainly no small coincidence to me that the most memorable tracks happen to be the five that include vocals. He seems to have paid keener attention to the tenets of good pop songwriting so that he could write and produce with his voice in mind, and this lights up the majority of Gliss Riffer. It also leads to a more coherent album; where he previously tried to balance, with mixed fortunes, his appreciation for the highbrow (contemporary composition) and lowbrow (his particular brand of hyperactive, bubblegum maximalism), Gliss Riffer more often aims for the latter, and is all the more enjoyable for it. Imagine an album that primarily comprises tracks like ‘True Thrush’ from America – which was his best song in the traditional sense until this point (‘When I Was Done Dying’ now holds that title, as it pairs Deacon’s characteristic B I G approach with a surreal, Joanna Newsom-esque narrative, with transcendent results) – and you’ll get the idea. In other words, then, these tracks are a fucking blast; effervescent, boisterous, and vital in ways that are utterly predictable of Dan Deacon, but afforded an additional sense of jubilant energy because of the vocals that now drive Deacon’s delirious, iridescent torrent of noise
But where vocals have clearly determined the progression of Gliss Riffer, Deacon’s decision to produce alone on his computer really hasn’t yielded any discernible stylistic changes. Apparently, he’s made use of a more electronic palette, but that cannot be felt when he layers his music as densely as he possibly can without creating an incoherent racket. So, as with any Dan Deacon album, there can be so much going that it can be overwhelming. But while I would argue that this approach is always in the service of melody and momentum, I understand that some find listening to a Dan Deacon record akin to drinking a cocktail of fizzy drinks: you get a pretty good kick, but, ultimately, the overload of sugar and chemicals means that you only get the overpowering taste of something unnatural. To me, though, this overload lends itself to a sound that, at its best, can be truly psychedelic, that can pummel the senses and throw you off your perceptual axis with the force of a glitter storm (which don’t exist, but I imagine they’d be powerful). Though different means – sheer volume, a driving force that’s impossible to deny, a bizarre confluence of noises – the five tracks that include vocals showcase Deacon’s capability to throw your perception off-kilter and envelop you completely. And, during these moments, it seems that Gliss Riffer may be his brightest, most joyfully psychedelic album yet. Certainly, there’s a pervasive sense that Deacon was having a blast while recording, and that can be infectious.
But Jesus fucking Christ, somebody desperately needed to tell him when to stop. For all the album’s merits – and there are many – the entire thing is beset by a lack of discipline that’s sometimes difficult to excuse. With the exception of ‘When I was Done Dying’ and ‘Mind on Fire’ every track exceeds its natural course by a minute at the very least. He gets to the point of his songs so quickly, and seemingly has no desire to build or evolve beyond that point, that he only serves to belabour them through their extended durations. So even the best tracks run out of steam eventually, descending into repetition that, despite sounding nice enough, has no real purpose; tracks spin the wheels enough for the act to become conspicuous, but they’re not so extremely protracted that they create tension or become somewhat hypnotic. It’s just empty noise. Maybe Deacon was having too much fun to recognise this? Maybe the solitary process behind the album meant that he wasn’t getting the sort of critical feedback he would have if he worked collaboratively? Conjecture, I know, but his choices are kind of inexplicable to the extent that I need to try and make some sense of them.
Take the final three tracks – which somehow constitute just over half the album’s 43 minute duration – for example. Deacon just about gets away with ‘Learning to Relax’ – the shortest of the three at six minutes and forty-four seconds – which is propulsive and euphoric until it reaches a breaking point after four minutes, after which it indulges in the needless repetition outlined in the previous paragraph. Take it to the Max’ and ‘Steely Blues’, however, don’t even reach those giddy heights. Now, to be fair, they perhaps could have worked as bookends, considering that they’re quite unlike anything else on the record – imagine the intricately designed sound collages of Bromst, rather than gushing, exuberant noise. But Gliss Riffer‘s bizarre sequencing, which inelegantly plonks both these stylistic anomalies at the end, relegates them to a prolonged afterthought. Both tracks feign grandiosity by building anticipation, gradually piling on more and more ornate layers over seven minutes, all the while threatening to reach an ecstatic point of bliss. But Deacon never makes good on this threats. Both tracks simply fizzle out into obscurity, failing to do anything particularly of note. This anti-climactic ending, bereft of the delirious momentum that characterised the album’s first half, really leaves a sour taste in the mouth, especially when what came before (excluding ‘Meme Generator, which I haven’t mentioned until this point for a reason – it’s just pretty sounding filler) was so fun and charming, despite its struggles with brevity.
Of course, struggles with brevity have characterised much of Deacon’s career until this point, and I think the opening half of Gliss Riffer (which, I should probably mention, is immensely satisfying to say) actually benefits from that. I mean, those tracks can be filed under ‘typical Dan Deacon’, which is a winning category even at the worst of times. But, still, these struggles are made all the more frustrating in the context of Gliss Riffer for two reasons: one, Deacon’s stated goal was to refine his characteristic sound, to trim the fat and make it the best he possibly could, which, he hasn’t accomplished, despite all the good work here; and two, Deacon seems so close to making the album of three minute pop bangers he seems uniquely qualified to make. And this brings us back to the press release. Gliss Riffer may well be Dan Deacon’s Most Personal Album Yet™, but that means very little when it’s so similar – in ways that are both positive and negative – to what came before it. It’s a fun story to tell, I suppose, but not a measure of quality and certainly not an inherent virtue. Really, it just seems an excuse for when you don’t know when to stop.
(By the way, I’m aware of the irony of writing a 1,500 word review in order to decry excessive length, so don’t bother pointing that out).