Dan Deacon and Matthew Dear both have something the slightest bit cartoonish about their personas — two wildly different forms of cartoonishness, but both of the variety that is, for a pop musician, a helpful thing. Deacon, for his part, was first introduced to the world (or the world outside of Baltimore) as a lovable party-starter in neon short-shorts and oversized glasses, making joyously hyperactive sheets of synth noise and communal shouting, and putting on shows that seemed to break through people’s sense of cool inhibition and turn them, for an hour or two, into happy toddlers, bouncing around one another with hearts swelling. Which is to say, his cartoonishness might be along the lines of kindergarten teachers and Barney the dinosaur, group leaders who’ll act generously, unabashedly goofy to help an audience join them in the same ecstatic freedom.
Matthew Dear, on the other hand, started out making clickety dessicated techno in Michigan, and comes off a lot more like some kind of comic-book shadow: tall and dark and louche and stylish and, judging by one of his shows at this year’s South by Southwest conference, the kind of guy who’ll dress like he’s headed to a formal dinner in an erotic vampire novel even in the swelter and dust of East Austin, where no one would blame him for packing up the leather pants and high collar, working a T-shirt, and adopting a somewhat less Bowie-ish stage presence. Both styles work: They’re attractive, captivating. They also seem like indicators that each of these musicians has put some real thought into what he’s trying to present to us, artistically, and the most effective way to put it across. Both have new albums, out last week, that you could very easily argue are their most accomplished yet.
Deacon’s is the more ambitious, which you can tell because it’s called America (listen on Spotify here), and its second half consists of a four-song, twenty-minute suite called “USA.” The idea stems, according to the Artist’s Statement, from two familiar experiences. One is that of the young U.S. lefty who travels abroad and rapidly learns that no matter how critical he or she may feel toward American jingoism, imperialism, corporatization, or consumer culture, there is no escaping the fact of being indelibly marked by and connected to the nation. (Feel or believe anything you want; you will still show up in Rome or Amsterdam and realize you are inextricably of this place, that even your frustrations with America are American frustrations.) The other seems to be that of the person who travels west across the country and is captivated by the same sense of grandeur and endless teeming westward thrust that’s been a central part of American portraits for a century and a half — majestic plains, grand peaks, railways and highways, Manifest Destiny, that whole Thomas Hart Benton-ish sense of raw humanity marching hopefully out into vastness. One segment of that four-part suite is titled “USA — Is a Monster”; the others are “The Great American Desert,” “Rail,” and “Manifest.”
These are good themes for an artist whose music has always seemed to be, on some level, about community, and how to arrange large groups of people into relationships that feel joyful and productive, instead of angry or contentious. The more striking ambition here is sonic, though. Deacon’s a trained composer, and his instantly recognizable sound has plenty in common with minimalism — even a pop critic can easily hear Steve Reich and Philip Glass in the way he sets patterns looping against one another, gradually building up layers into a dense swarm of mallet instruments and rumbling drums and sheets of synthesizer buzz that glitch and modulate like modems. The trick he seems to have uncovered, though, is the very close resemblance between that kind of minimalism and the most straightforwardly satisfying bits of pop music, the parts of pop that give it its zoomy, sugar-rush intensity: simple, repetitive, earworm hooks that keep looping over and over the same chord shifts. His first two major albums, Spiderman of the Rings and Bromst, tended to split the difference into dense, danceable, and intensely exciting buzzes. On America, the scale stretches out magnificently; there’s less of that waterpark rush and more contemplative scenery. The mix of orchestral arrangements and insistent machines is total and seamless, in a way that inevitably puts you in mind of a whole modern computerized nation inscribed on a vast natural landscape. And on “True Thrush,” you find one of the fruits on this development: It’s one of the most affecting pop songs Deacon’s ever written, and it actually works on the level of a sedate chug, not an ecstatic heart-bursting zoom. Instead of chanting like someone working an audience into a frenzy, Deacon sings like he wants to reassure us.
Matthew Dear’s Beams (listen on Spotify here) is a little more sedate than his previous work, too, but there is — thankfully — nothing reassuring about it. You don’t turn to Dear for reassurance, or at least I don’t; you turn to him to be spooked, seduced, and unsettled, feats he’s gotten steadily better at accomplishing. A lot of it comes down to his voice, an awkward instrument — low, froggy, villainous, and lacking much range — that’s only gradually found a place in his music: First it was just a clipped sing-speak threaded through dance tracks like 2003’s “Dog Days,” then a humble whisper floating through the watery pop songs on EPs like Backstroke. That voice has an arresting effect, though, like someone croaking seductively and with sinister intent from behind a velvet curtain, and Dear’s steadily worked out not just how to record it (adding effects to give it even more of a wobbly demonic grain than usual — one of many kinships he might share with Karin Dreijer Andersson of the Knife and Fever Ray), but how to make pop music that lets it shine: Listen to the songs on Beams, and it’s difficult to imagine many other singers, even those far more naturally gifted than Dear, fitting into this particular shadow-world quite as well as he does.
That world is, after all, custom-built for him, and the sounds he builds from keep gelling more beautifully together: dark minor-key pulses, steamy exhalations, synths that grumble and flounce, and plenty of crumbly, greasy, urban-decay textures, all locking tight into grooves until they seem less like individual lines and more like one mutant environment. Dear comes from a dance background, and he seems well aware that his songs aren’t going to take flight based on some grand vocal expression, a big nervy chorus, or stadium-rousing shout — his gifts involve building the layers of a song to the point of rich tension and suspense, pacing them out slowly while whispering in your ear about bloody wounds and grim neurosis. He also has a terrific ear for exactly what kind of lyrical phrasing should go in the spotlight: The most affecting track on his last album was called “You Put a Smell On Me,” and it climaxed with Dear repeating the phrase “little red nightgown” with an almost predatory hunger in his voice, a moment that wouldn’t have been nearly as striking wrapped around any other sort of line. Beams doesn’t have that kind of stagy boldness. What it has instead is a low-key intimacy that feels even more dangerous and complex. Now it really is as if Dear’s whispering in your ear, someplace quieter than before, and still taking a role that’s anything but reassuring. Even “Ahead of Myself,” a song about devoting yourself to another person, stops every few lines to take back whatever it just offered: “Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.”