We live in a time of incredible darkness. 2020 already has had a new killer virus, a failed effort to oust a lying scumbag from office, Brexit finally kicking in, and two of the best royals in memory buggering off to Canada. Thank god then for Dan Deacon’s latest album Mystic Familiar, which is the exact shot of hope and psychedelic whimsy that 2020 needed.
Since Spider-Man of the Rings in 2007, Deacon has remained on the fringes doing unclassifiable and inventive work that may have kept him off soundtracks and commercials unlike many of his contemporaries. If his last proper album Glass Riffer in 2015 was the sound of a man in flux with its joyous “Feel the Lightning” and anxiety laden “When I Was Done Dying”—then Mystic Familiar is the sound of a man coming out the other side of that, having stared down the darkness and come back stronger, or perhaps stranger. The good news is we are all the better off for it, because it is frankly fantastic.
Recent single “Become a Mountain” is the opener, it sets the themes of the album perfectly. Minimal piano, Deacon’s voice unaltered and telling us he is “getting old now, I’m so lucky, and yet I forget I’m still hungry.” It is the perfect opener, and lets you know you are going on a journey, somewhat familiar and yet wholly unique in 2020. “Hypnagogic” is a calming tone that sounds almost like an electronic yodel through retrowave mountains—leading us into the next track, the lead single “Sat by a Tree,” which has all of the charm, feel good, layered vibes of Deacon’s previously great work backed by a propulsive beat. “Sat by a Tree” is a hymn to just plain-old feeling good and it’s a high-point of this journey, telling us we may all pass on, but what we do whilst we are here is important.
“Arp I: Wide Eyed” is a psychedelic march with beeps and scratches, and then a menacing drum with the vocals coming in saying “there is a darkness in this place, there are fears I cannot face, but I hold on to you as long as I can.” It’s a short and pleasant ode to that special someone who makes everything alright. We head straight into “Arp II: Float Away,” which carries on the electronic soundscape, and adds to it for a solid three minutes with the vocals coming back in and telling us to “close your eyes and float away.”
The sounds grow wistful and twinkly, and then turns downwards and minimal into a sudden repeat of the earlier command before we progress into “Arp III: Far From Shore.” There is silence and squealing sax somewhere far away, with a menacing background drone. A consistent steady beat comes in, and the sound of John Carpenter-style ’80s synths as distorted electronic vocals tell us “There is a darkness in this place” but “you make me feel free,” suggesting the whole saga is Deacon’s new-found bliss struggling in the face of the dark we all have within. The vocals about closing eyes and floating away are repeated, but sound worried. This sequence concludes with “Arp IV: Any Moment,” a final minute which sounds like we are moving out of some kind of portal, and back into the real world with a message we must not forget.
“Weeping Birch” is a theremin led freak out with strings that sounds mournful, and builds to create an epic soundscape all of its own free of vocals, but still high on emotion. “Fell into the Ocean” continues the subdued melancholy at the start but then builds in a beat, and the vocals coming to the fore. Deacon sings “I fell into the ocean, I fell asleep for days and days” before then telling us he also has the ability to become an ocean just as he did a mountain. “Dig deep, burn bright, stay sharp” a female vocalist tells us as Deacon tells us “First you must relax before transcend.”
“Fell into the Ocean” is a journey that starts in the ocean, heads into the sky and is perhaps Mystic Familiar‘s finest moment. “My Friend” is a five-minute track that starts ethereal, and then adds a propulsive twang and Deacon’s vocals clearer than ever talking about seeing someone who may well have disappeared, and not regretting the moments they spent together. “I’m still alive, oh what a ride I’m screaming” he tells us as the sounds build in an epic fashion that stirs the heart and engages the sense of wonder at the world.
We end on “Bumblebee Crown King”, a seven-minute, pacy, somewhat tinny journey that builds into a psychedelic freak-out with distortion, and then calms down and fades out. It is uplifting, it is crazy, it is basically this whole album in a nutshell.
If I have one complaint about Mystic Familiar it’s simply that it isn’t long enough, but if we are talking about quality over quantity then it is a triumph. It has all the best parts of the Flaming Lips’ most commercial albums, and yet is still a very personal work by a unique, underrated artist and a true one off. If there is any justice, this will be the album to make Dan Deacon a household name, and is exactly what 2020 needed—hope, joy and invention in equal measure.