Dirty Projectors Lamp Lit Prose

[Domino; 2018]

Styles: rock, R&B, experimental
Others: Vampire Weekend, Grizzly Bear

Dave Longstreth has always seemed too sincere for the cynical, self-denying idiom of experimental rock. The genre steeps itself in alienating tools like harsh feedback, challenging song structure, and cold, abstract lyrics while often conforming to the guitar-bass-drum paradigm that grounds and distinguishes rock & roll from other styles. It postures itself as subversive and polarizing while at the same time denying its reliance on that tried and true music foundation. So to hear Longstreth, on the song “Two Brown Finches” from 2003’s The Glad Fact, longingly sing, “We drank a two-liter of Orange Crush” over a lo-fi, borderline no-fi guitar strumming pattern that sounds a little like a Charles Manson song is unusual, to say the least.

That lyric of adolescent reminiscence, of restrained heartbreak, is the kind of contemplative, romantic poetry that set Dirty Projectors apart from the lo-fi outsider artists who came into being alongside the band in the early aughts. On “Finches,” Orange Crush was the sugary, calorically empty drink of romance. On Bitte Orca’s “Temecula Sunrise,” the libation of choice changed to Gatorade as Longstreth and his partner sipped heartily in afterglow. This motif concluded last year on the band’s self-titled LP; on “Up in Hudson,” Longstreth sings of former girlfriend and bandmate Amber Coffman hanging out in Echo Park “drinking a fifth” in remembrance of him while he wallows to Kanye’s music on the Taconic Parkway.

Longstreth is a romantic, first and foremost, and as such, he was an outlier in the experimental rock circles that the Projectors were so often lumped into in their early days. But it also appeared that he and his bandmates were always interested in a more conventional pop aesthetic, with the group embodying an increasingly accessible sound with each passing album. With oblique but not totally inscrutable lyrics and labyrinthine guitar lines that slowly laid the pathway toward an orthodox R&B/pop sound, Dirty Projectors made no bones about their pop-oriented ambitions. And on Lamp Lit Prose, the band make good on those ambitions and offer their most conventional collection of songs yet.

Lamp Lit Prose is in many ways a wiping of the band’s slate. The Projector’s eponymous album last year served as an attempt at rebranding, but it was ultimately a breakup album and, as such, was rooted in the group’s past, particularly Longstreth’s personal attachment to Coffman, who departed the group in 2013. But Prose is a new beginning. On “Blue Bird,” Longstreth declares, “I feel just fine on this bench with you” in an access of contentment. The bottle of soda is gone from the scene, but the romantic sentiment of “Finches” remains. “You and me, me and you/ Something sweet, something new,” goes the chorus. The airy R&B backdrop is a bit understated for this bald-faced declaration of jubilance, but in that it isn’t without its charm.

Like any good pop composer, which is what Longstreth always wanted to be, it seems, the singer best conveys his ideas by way of big, hefty instrumentation. Take “I Found it in U,” whose opening line echoes that of “Blue Bird:” “Ask now, I’m in love for the first time ever.” The song’s busy percussion and halting power pop guitar breathe life into the awe-stricken lyrics and forgive the vagueness of the song’s titular hook. Likewise, the excitement of “I Feel Energy” comes from the song’s disconnect between its kinetic futurist R&B dance posturing and use of broad, defeatist lyrical fodder (“We are fundamentally alone in the universe,” “The world is gonna end,” etc.).

The album’s successes in its admixture of striking music and lyrics is hampered, however, by its reliance on the tricks of some of Dirty Projectors’ earlier songs. Opening track “Right Now’s” precisely plucked Spanish guitar harks back to 2009’s “Temecula Sunrise,” as does “That’s a Lifestyle’s” twin acoustic zig zagging. “Zombie Conqueror,” with a meretricious folk intro and electric stomp chorus, bears a resemblance to Orca’s “The Bride” that’s more than coincidental. And while these songs aren’t uninspired in their revisiting of the group’s back catalogue, they don’t capture the manic grace of a band deftly towing the line between experimental and mainstream rock that those Bitte songs did. On these tracks, it sounds as if Longstreth were looking into a mirror and seeing (or wishing to see) the long-haired, clean-shaven librettist who once fronted the Projectors, rather than the bearded, romantic zealot leader he is today.

Dirty Projectors remain such an elusive band because their career trajectory has been so unpredictable. Few groups have the temerity to follow a high-concept reimagining of Black Flag’s Damaged from memory with a string of romantic avant rock song cycles. But Lamp Lit Prose is a quiet retreat into the confines of basic rock and pop trappings — perhaps not an unpredictable stepping stone in the group’s career, but certainly not unwelcome either. As its bookish title suggests, the album can be quaint, yet Prose is not an overthought practice in understatement. It’s a work of populist experimentation, a piece of music that flails outward as much as it meditates inward.

Most Read