The most wholly Dan Deacon album Deacon has ever made.
Since 2015, electronic artist Dan Deacon has focused his work almost entirely on film soundtracks. With 2017’s Rat Film and 2018’s Time Trial both being instrumentals, it’s been a while since we’ve heard a full, studio release from the Baltimore-based musician. On Mystic Familiar, all of the typical, hyperactive and often overstimulating shimmery electronics that mark his past albums are present and even heightened, making, for better or worse, the most wholly Dan Deacon album Deacon has ever made.
The album begins with genuine excitement. “Become a Mountain” features bright keys and Deacon’s unaltered vocals — the first time on a studio record listeners have really heard his voice as is, without heavy alteration — sets a hypnotic, almost meditatively repetitive tone. After the-short-enough-to-have-just-been-added-as-an-intro-to-the-following-track “Hypnagogic,” the album’s energy only continues to grow. The tone, especially in the first third of the record is incredibly light and colorful, so much so that tracks like “Sat by a Tree” can veer into the category of saccharine, but the joyfulness imparted into the instrumentals of these songs is enough to keep anything from feeling overbearing.
Deacon remains his best on the four suites of “Arp”—a structural conceit not unfamiliar to Deacon, and one he has used in the past as a means to create some of his most grand pieces. The second of the parts, “Float Away,” is the most cacophonous, psychedelic track on the album, and when that chaos is stopped hard in its tracks by the whimpering saxophone solo that opens “Far From Shore,” the contrast is immediate and powerful—it’s a rude awakening from the surrealist musical landscape and Deacon’s final attempt to avoid confronting reality. The final section of “Arp,” “Any Moment,” serves mostly as an opportunity to catch one’s breath, accept the uncertain surroundings alluded to in the previous song and return to the earth before the gentle and somber, violin-focused “Weeping Birch,” which is far and away the most serene song on the entire record.
Mystic Familiar flies by in the best of ways. The music is dynamic, intricately and immensely layered and attention-grabbing. But in the final three songs, the momentum of Mystic Familiar seems to slow to molasses—there is still sweetness in the music that’s worthwhile, but nothing that lives up to what came before.
The vocals towards the end of “Fell Into the Ocean” become so repetitive that the words begin to lose their meaning, and the more mysteriously-toned, new-wave synthesizers fail to keep interest over the track’s four and a half minute runtime. The glittery bombast of “Bumble Bee Crown King” feels reminiscent of some of Deacon’s previous work, and reaches for the awe-inspiring sprawl and heights of songs like “USA: II. The Great American Desert,” but cannot equal their scope and leaves much less of an impression, even after multiple listens.
Mystic Familiar doesn’t usurp America or Broomst as Deacon’s most accomplished or intriguing work, but it is his most captivating project since that time and the most personal album he has ever made. If you were out on Deacon before this album, it isn’t going to change your mind, but for those with even a passing interest in Deacon’s material at least three-quarters of Mystic Familiar will be an undeniable bright spot.