Animal Collective’s Deakin (real name Josh Dibb) perhaps comes across as the ‘quiet one’ of the group, a moniker attributed to shy, mysterious members of popular bands since the conception of the band as a team of talented and attractive young men first entered the public image in the 1950s and 60s. Although I resent the idea of categorizing musicians just because the public feels that they have a real relationship with them, there are some hard facts that may support a claim along these lines: Deakin has been absent on 50% of Animal Collective’s records, he has never before put out solo material, and he has only sung lead vocals on one AnCo track (Centipede Hz’s ‘Wide Eyes’). He also comes across a bit shyer in interviews than more natural spokesmen Avey Tare or Geologist. But in the spring of 2016, after choosing to abstain from his band’s most recent creative project (the solid Painting With, which was released in February), Deakin released his first solo LP, seven years in the making, titled Sleep Cycle (out independently via bandcamp). And it is, far more than pleasantly surprisingly, better than Painting With, ‘Wide Eyes’, or just about anything anyone besides those close to Deakin could have imagined.
At just thirty-three minutes and six tracks, the record is small and digestible, featuring four longer, ‘main’ tracks with discernable lyrics and two shorter interludes. But those four tracks are brilliant. Opener ‘Golden Chords’ begins in a way not seen on an Animal Collective project in some time; with spacious, sparse acoustic guitars and vocals front and center. After watching his bandmates delve further and further into less accessible electronic, sampling and synth based approaches, the track is as refreshing as a cold northeastern river on a sunny June morning. Deakin’s vocals are (gasp!) understandable, and his lyrics more pointed and direct than those of AnCo vocalists Avey Tare and Panda Bear. The song is an inner-dialogue between Deakin and himself, questioning his authenticity, goals and motives as he, just like his bandmates, grows ever older and more mature. One lyric in particular breaks my heart every time for its allusion to Deakin’s work with his bandmates and best friends – ‘And with each restless shiver you wretch from your soul / you’re asking / is that something I’m not anymore? / A brother to shake these broken chords till they turn gold?’ Getting over one’s own bullshit and self-doubt is a message that is universally resonant, whether listeners choose to believe so or not, and I’d be hard pressed to find a lyric that better captures the nostalgic sentiment of realizing that a chapter of one’s life is over.
Second track ‘Just Am’ picks up the pace with a walking speed piano line and continues the theme of Deakin coming to conclusions through man vs. self introspective dialogues. ‘So I am crying words that don’t make sense to me or them / but I am singing I am singing beams the child inside then disappears again’, Deakin sings, and although Avey and Panda may have expressed similar sentiments in their own way (the former through wild, naturalistic imagery, the latter through concise enigmas), they’ve never put it in such straightforward terms, and as a result, in a way that could resonate with casual listeners. Deakin has another heartbreaker of a line up his sleeve later in the song, and its prominence in the mix, unburied under vocal modulation, harmonies or blaring synthesizers, lets it ring even truer; “‘cause I hold on to things that dearly need replacing!”
After the one-minute interlude titled ‘Shadow Mine’ that consists of droning music over chants recorded by Deakin when he spent time in Mali, we are greeted with ‘Footy’, a bombastic track showcasing Deakin’s impressive production skills that feature his signature guitar work (for which he was best known as a member of Animal Collective). After a slow start, the track begins to roll on its own lopsided momentum as smashing drums and high pitched synthesizers bring about exploding climax after exploding climax ala AnCo’s work on Centipede Hz.
Following another short interlude, we arrive at the record’s final and best track, the truly gorgeous ‘Good House’. After a series of interior battles with self-doubt, work stress, depression and fatigue, Deakin finally settles himself in a place where he can be calm, for the sake of his own sanity and happiness. ‘Breathe out / you’re alright / breathe in with all / spit out all that rage / you’re safe now don’t fight / your body’s engaged’ Deakin reassures himself, and there is a tone to his voice that affirms that he can not only sing these words, but believe them as well. The track swells in beautiful indietronic symphony, and both its lyrical content and its sound bring the project to a natural conclusion; that peace of mind and self-confidence can be achieved through intensive introspection and honesty.
The record is thirty-three minutes long, and although the production is engaging and the arrangements complex, that length and the fact that it is a solo project leave less secrets and corners to be uncovered than in a typical Animal Collective album. But its themes are made plain and bare; its ideas represented aptly and completely, and its accessibility serves not to simplify a formula but to connect better the listener with the artist. As a fan of AnCo, I often wondered what role Deakin played in the band; the vocalists’ musical styles unfolded and revealed themselves over an extended discography and their own solo work, and Geologist was always known as the electronic, synthesizer obsessed side of the project. But Deakin? Besides being the primary guitarist, his other contributions were difficult to disentangle from the work. I am now convinced, however, that whatever those contributions may be, they pale in comparison to his true strength as a musician. He’s a singer/songwriter, plain and simple, and now he has claim to perhaps the best album of the young 2016.