Dan Deacon hasn’t released an album since 2015’s Gliss Riffer, but the lord of the Baltimore dance floor never went off the grid. In the last five years, Deacon scored eight films, played with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and co-wrote new music with Ed Schrader’s Music Beat. The steady output belies what Deacon refers to as “a pretty wild time of flux for me,” the end of which resulted in his new album, Mystic Familiar, out Jan. 31 on Domino.
“My personal life changed quite a bit,” Deacon, 38, says over the phone from his home in Baltimore. He still lives close to the Copycat Building, where he and his friends from SUNY Purchase founded the Wham City art and music collective in the mid-2000s, when Deacon unleashed his candy-coated electronic sounds onto the masses.
After Gliss Riffer, Deacon’s life changes ranged from getting his driver’s license and starting to meditate to losing his main studio space and breaking up with his long-term partner. “It was like the first mature relationship ending that maybe I’d ever had in my life,” he says. “And — actually, can I not talk about it?”
Speaking publicly about the personal is new for Deacon, but that’s part of what Mystic Familiar is all about: opening up. He conveys this shift most explicitly on the album by singing in his own unfiltered voice, which he has rarely, if ever, done on record. “I thought I did it on Gliss Riffer. I was like, ‘This is the record where my voice is there!’ I said that and people would be like, ‘Yeah, but there’s still all these effects. What are you talking about?’ And I was like, ‘I guess I didn’t do it. I’ll be back in five years.’”
His naked voice on Mystic Familiar is meant to convey the vulnerability he was feeling in the studio. “I didn’t want to mask it or pretend like it wasn’t there,” he says. “I did feel really raw and vulnerable while making this record, emotionally, and I was like, if that’s how I feel and I’m trying to put how I feel into these songs, I should match that.”
Those sentiments were tough to put into words. Anything that came off sounding like words of self-care felt like a foreign thought to him. So Deacon leaned into that idea, outsourcing his positive feedback to a “mystic familiar,” like a witch’s black cat or Merlin’s owl. “I grew up loving The Sword in the Stone as a kid,” says Deacon. “I loved how Archimedes was a total asshole to Merlin the whole time.”
The familiar appears on the album as a filtered, pitch-shifted contrast to Deacon’s first-person, unadulterated vocal. “Any time I’m saying ‘I’ on the record, that’s me, and any time there’s another voice, especially if it’s through a vocoder or has some sort of processing, that tends to be the familiar.” For example, on piano-led opener “Become a Mountain,” Deacon sings, “I rose up/Tired in my flesh/Getting old now/I’m so lucky,” while the familiar chimes in with “All of time/Is right here/Is right now.”
It’s not especially helpful advice, but Deacon suggests that maybe it’s wrong of us to expect familiars, whether animals or other things found in nature, to have all the answers. “When I was meditating, I was trying to meditate on this tree, and the tree at first was like, ‘Who the hell are you? How dare you? Why are you asking me this? Why do you think I owe you an answer?’ And I started thinking like, oh I guess that’s true. If I just walked up to somebody and were like, ‘What do I do?’ they’d be like, ‘I don’t know, dude! I just work here. Why are you asking me?’”
The tree was the basis for the song “Sat by a Tree,” which the self-managed Deacon and his label decided was the perfect lead single for the record because the skittering track feels closest to anything from his earlier albums. “I hadn’t put out a Dan Deacon song in years, so I wanted to make sure that old fans were like, ‘Cool. He’s back. I know who this is.’”
Wild energy floods the rest of Mystic Familiar, but it’s controlled chaos, expressed through a bevy of electronics, but also piano, strings and saxophone. During the album’s four-part “Arp I-IV” suite, named for the Arp 2600 synthesizer Deacon used while writing it, lyrics are shared among the tracks, which deal with blissful youth, the trauma of life and eventual death. “A lot of the record revolves around cycles of water, seasons and stages of life,” he says.
For all of the newness, the album is not without the occasional neon brushstroke of his debut album, 2007’s Spiderman of the Rings. “I agree that there’s a through-line, and I like people being able to tell that it’s the same person but tell that there’s growth to it.” Deacon looks back fondly on his older material, but he doesn’t “want to be making the primary-colored pop candy music I was making in 2007,” he says. “I like that record. I’m really happy I made it. If I had made anything else at that time, it would’ve been inauthentic, but if I tried to make that record now, it would be inauthentic. I’m not that person anymore.”
Though he now sings about leaving behind his youth, getting older and dying on Mystic Familiar, he swears he is in a better, less anxious place. “Before it was always about the time wasted, and now it’s much more like, ‘Oh, I wonder what this is going to be like in the future,’” he says. With this album, “the future became less of a place of dread and more of a place of anticipation.”