With Japanese whaling practices under intense international scrutiny lately, it’s somewhat serendipitious that Mount Wittenberg Orca, Dirty Projectors’ new collaborative EP with Björk, was released last week. Not only do the lyrics recount the meeting between DP’s Amber Coffman and a family of whales along the Northern California coast near Mount Wittenberg, but the proceeds from the seven-track, 21-minute suite will be donated to the National Geographic Society to help create international marine protected areas (only 1% of the oceans are currently protected). But the EP isn’t just about whale politics. While certainly pertinent to today’s whaling controversies — namely in regard to conservation and sustainability — primary songwriter Dave Longstreth extends Amber’s whale story into more metaphysical realms, exploring the nature of “nature” while obliterating the divides that obscure our perception of wholeness, of unity, of infinity.
For music with such an expansive reach, it’s interesting how contracted its inception was. Unlike Bitte Orca, which took months to write, rehearse, and record, Mount Wittenberg Orca was written in just one week and performed live a week later at a 2009 benefit show at New York’s Housing Works bookstore (thanks to Stereogum’s Brandon Stosuy, who dreamed up the collaboration). In an effort to embrace his instincts, Longstreth wrote the songs quickly, not allowing himself to “edit or revise.” It’s a methodology that he, Björk, and the rest of DP would retain roughly a year later while recording the tracks, rehearsing for just three days and performing the songs live to tape in a single room (only a guitar solo and lead vocals were overdubbed). This contraction in scale was an intentional gesture on Longstreth’s part. As he described the EP in an interview with Stereogum, “I hope that rather than having that deeply burnished orb/Rubik’s cube resolution feeling, these songs have something else: instinctual thrust, powerful thoughtlessness, easy unity, natural law, etc. — emotional directness!”
If emotional directness was the end goal, keeping the bells and whistles out of the music was a smart move. With minimal guitar, percussion (Brian McOmber), and upright bass (Nat Baldwin), the music is immediate and incisive, spotlighting Amber’s whale story through the incredible vocal interplay between Björk (who plays the Mother Whale), Longstreth (who plays Amber), and DP members Coffman, Angel Deradoorian, and Haley Dekle (who play the newborn whale calves). Beginning with “Ocean,” a short introduction intended to approximate the whales swimming in the tides, the calves’ open-throat harmonies reflect the cyclical movements of the ocean, simultaneously ascending and descending with increasing intensity in each iteration, setting up a somewhat ominous tone for the EP. “On and Ever Onward,” however, quickly tempers the mood with an upbeat track about the Mother Whale describing ocean life to her syncopating children: “Our home is all around us/ Our love is all around us,” sings Björk. “When the World Comes to an End” follows, describing Amber (again, played by Longstreth) spotting the family of whales and expressing her love for them. The DP vocalists are at their most penetrating here, with acrobatic singing that harkens back to the intricate vocal clouds of Rise Above’s “Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie,” an exercise in virtuosity that continues with the optimistic “Beautiful Mother,” sung from the perspective of the whale calves who observed the encounter between Amber and the Mother Whale.
But the EP takes on a darker tone with “Sharing Orb.” The Mother Whale is suspicious of Amber, connecting her presence directly to whale hunters (“Come into my home/ Murdered my family and leave me alone/ Ceaseless hunger ran until the sea is silent and deadly quiet but for an engine”) while making an appeal to share the Earth (“Here’s a sharing orb of water/ We all call her our mother”). Recognizing the tension, Amber starts to understand why the Mother Whale “hates” her in “No Embrace”: “You won’t say why you deny me your embrace/ Swimming in the sea, I think I understand why you hate me/ For what I’ve done/ For what I’ve done.” Amber, then, begins to transcend the ideological separations that discern humans from nature, singing, “I don’t see what image is appearing in front of me/ I am free/ I am not bound to the difference between ‘the real’/ And ‘the real’ to me/ And the only other one who I could ever believe/ Is the one that I could feel but never really say.” This emphasis on instinct, rather than logic, is reinforced in closing song “All We Are.” As Amber sings, “I looked out for you, but looking never meant less/ I could feel that you were gone, and I despondent turned and left/ I reached out for you but reaching never meant less/ I could feel that you were gone, and I despondent turned and left.”
What’s particularly interesting is how the emotional connection between Amber and the whales hinges on Longstreth’s ability to anthropomorphize the whales — that is, he attributes human qualities to the whales in order to underscore emotional meaning for a political, or at least humanist, end (to raise money for the National Geographic Society). Anthropomorphizing is a controversial tactic: while it encourages us to treat animals in a more ‘humane’ way, it also influences advocates to look down on countries that treat animals in a more hierarchical fashion, be it for religious or general cultural purposes. Longstreth, however, extends this appeal to emotion to its breaking point, proffering a more unified, global perspective with a stirring duet at the end of the suite. Here, the voices of both Amber and the Mother Whale are finally in sync, not just musically but philosophically too: “We looked out across the long horizon/ We looked in each other’s eyes and realized that we are only one/ Through a moment we could glimpse an infinity/ And through infinity we could see all in all is all we are.” With this final harmony, the use of the voice switches brilliantly from indicating spatial movement and establishing character to a symbolic expression of universality. It’s a tear-jerker of an ending (especially in that it borrows lyrics from Nirvana’s “All Apologies”), one that not only unifies Amber and the Mother Whale on a metaphysical level, but also exposes the false dialectic of humans versus nature.
After the brouhaha of last year’s decidedly accessible Bitte Orca, we might be tempted to hear Mount Wittenberg Orca as new sonic frontier for Dirty Projectors. But to anyone who has followed the band over the last eight years, Bitte Orca was as much an experiment as The Glad Fact or The Getty Address. The album might’ve sounded ‘poppier’ and more ‘accessible’ — which is of course why Dirty Projectors were catapulted to the forefront of indie consciousness — but fearing that these songs were indicative of indie-pop conformity would not only be ignoring the group’s rich and varied history with melody and rhythm, but also underestimating the ingenuity and convictions that Longstreth has consistently boasted throughout his recorded career. In other words, Mount Wittenberg Orca is as much an experimental anomaly for Dirty Projectors as Bitte Orca, which is really to say that, in context, none of their records are anomalies at all. And if this seven-song suite imparts us with anything, it’s that, while logic and rationalization has led us to ideological divisions like ‘experimental vs. pop’ and ‘humans vs. nature,’ embracing our emotions can lead us to a more unified existence.