The genre of indie pop has always maintained a code of individuality, given its roots within the psychedelic movement of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. It was celebrated at the time of its inception for introducing a new sound in pop, while also preserving the “transcendence” mantra that stems from the psychedelic movement. Its focus was on connecting with nature in a spiritual and life-affirming manner.
By the new millennium, however, artists like Death Cab for Cutie and The Decemberists shifted the aims of the genre to be about the relationship humans have with themselves. They began to ask questions about the fragility of humanity in the face of a world that was looking more and more hostile. In effect, they changed the values of indie pop from being outwardly oriented and nature-driven to introspective and individualistic. It seems that most people have forgotten the original roots of the genre; it hasn’t always been about self-reflection.
Enter Dan Deacon. Though the Baltimore-based musician first became known as a highly subversive, electronic artist (the video of him performing on local news from 2006 is proof), he has since thrust himself into the underground pop scene. With his newest record Mystic Familiar, Deacon manages to craft an album that brings back the earthen spirituality of early indie pop while also diving deep into his own personal anxieties.
Throughout the record, there is an emphasis on impermanence, particularly death and old age. With Deacon nearing his 40s, it isn’t all that surprising that these matters are occupying his thoughts. Mystic Familiar acts as a sort of therapeutic solution to these ideas that have been tormenting him. The spiritual essence of nature combats the questions that haunt him. He’s trying to, as the opening track title states, “Become a Mountain.” If he can convince himself that the memory of his existence is indomitable like a mountain, then old age and death become less threatening inevitabilities. This idea of combating impermanence with transcendentalism is a perfect marriage between the two iterations of indie pop. Deacon is looking outward to look inward.
Sonically, the project isn’t obviously indie pop. Considering Deacon’s background as a composer and electronic artist, it isn’t surprising that he has influences from outside the field of pop. Perhaps the most noticeable influences are Phillip Glass and Steve Riech, two pioneers of the minimalism movement of the 20th century. The way Dan layers orchestral lines on “Become a Mountain” is a clear throwback to Glass’s piece Glassworks. The arpeggiated strings on “Weeping Birch” instantly bear comparison to the strings on Reich’s Different Trains. There are also nods to Daft Punk and These New Puritans, to name a few. Miraculously, Mystic Familiar takes all of these influences and blends them into something that is a completely new musical experience.
Dan Deacon has always been an artist whose musical goal is to approach a feeling and understand it. Any concepts that the listener takes away from his music are simply a byproduct of this feeling. In this way, it’s very possible that he never had this idea of marrying the two sides of indie pop in his mind while he was writing it. He might have just tried to get a bit closer to comprehending transcendence from a blatantly human perspective, attempting to relieve himself of his anxieties. If he was intentionally trying to bridge the gap between the two eras of the genre, he would have toned down the experimentation and added more pop flavoring. Instead he composes something beautifully unique and innovative. In this manner, Mystic Familiar is a trailblazer by representing three eras of indie pop: past, present and future.