Dirty Projectors are back with Lamp Lit Prose, an album that feels like the purposeful antithesis of its predecessor.
It’s not necessarily accurate to call Dirty Projectors “pop,” but it’s not necessarily inaccurate either. A simple love of pop music has been evident if you listen intently enough to Slaves’ Graves & Ballads and The Getty Address (the latter of which was heavily influenced by Don Henley), and this love has become more integral to the work of Dave Longstreth ever since – Bitte Orca hit “Stillness Is the Move” is indisputable evidence of this. Then Longstreth began working with Kanye West (he produced the West/Rihanna/Paul McCartney track “FourFiveSeconds”) and Solange (he helped produce A Seat at the Table), and out of that headspace we got last year’s Dirty Projectors, a brutal near-solo album full of grungy pop/R&B textures, complete with some great 808s & Heartbreak Auto-Tune flourishes. Beneath the sound, though, was a suffering Longstreth, working through the romantic harrows of his relationship with former bandmate Amber Coffman. It was a pop record, and like 808s, it was one densely layered with anguish.
I want to drive home the fact that this album was as dire as it was because, just over a year later, Dirty Projectors are back with Lamp Lit Prose, an album that feels like the purposeful antithesis of its predecessor. Prose swings the pop pendulum back the other direction, delivering an unwaveringly chipper and infectious near bite-size palate cleanser – the rainbow after the hurricane. Prose doesn’t have a single song on it that doesn’t have at least one catchy hook, be it Longstreth’s words and delivery or the arpeggiated guitars that have long been a staple of Dirty Projectors music, sorely missed on the self-titled. I dare you to give this a couple listens and resist singing the chorus of the self-titled era Vampire Weekend jocking “Break-Thru” to yourself alone for the rest of the day.
From the outset, Prose feels designed to stand at odds with the previous album. “The sky has darkened, earth turned to hell/ Some said a light got shined where darkness dwelt/ So I won’t cry or collapse, overwhelmed/ Time like a song just might rhyme with itself,” he sings accompanied by a characteristically itchy guitar on opener “Right Now.” Longstreth’s language here is kinda overdramatic, but considering where he was musically a year-and-a-half ago, this is a drastic step back. Then, he delivers something of a guiding principle for Prose: “I might sing the melody, but I don’t set the tempo.” He’s all about joie de vivre here, and though the saccharinity could wear thin with a longer album, its lean frame allows him to experiment with optimism in a more manageable way – less Naomi Klein references, more Fellini and Casablancas. The album’s front half is a sugar rush, from the summery hooks of the aforementioned “Break-Thru” to the fantastic horn section of the egregiously-danceable “I Feel Energy” (featuring the album’s best accompaniment courtesy of Amber Mark),
The album isn’t all up-up-up, though, with the back half including the album’s moodier pieces. The grungy “Zombie Conqueror,” with the help of Empress Of, marks a stylistic line in the album, with the following four tracks wandering down stranger pathways. “I Found It In U” is a glittery hodge-podge of all Longstreth’s pop and rock tendencies, tossing out lines like “And when we met there were alien hosannas/ Thrown from the heavens like Prince and Nirvana” and “A hand in a glove on a joint adventure/ Moving toward our own Goldilocks planet” as skittering beats collide with fuzzy guitar tones, with shifting tempos with gleeful abandon. “I Found It in U” is the most Dirty Projectors-y of songs present here, cacophonous in all the right places with his trademark voice in fine form.
The final three songs dovetail nicely, sliding from the jazzy “What Is the Time,” (perhaps the album’s weakest, though to its credit, it’s just less good than the album’s other songs) and “You’re the One,” an honest-to-god love song. The idea of Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold and Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij occupying the same album seems dubious. But when you hear the two harmonizing together with Longstreth on “You’re the One,” you understand how awe-inspiring it is for the writer of “We’ve been hanging tight for all the things we want out of love” to be singing “I’ll always have love for what came before/ And with you I feel it more and more/ And here with you now, I know that you’re the one.” The album ends on a fascinating note, the lethargic Duke Ellington sendup “(I Wanna) Feel It All,” almost a respite for the manic energy that permeates the previous 32 minutes. Here, with the help of Dear Nora’s Katy Davidson, he reaches the happy medium in between the massive highs and the crushing lows: “I wanna feel it all/ August’s light, February’s pall/ Thrill to the rise and rue the fall/ I wanna feel it all.”
Looking at the space between Prose and the one before it, it’s easy to understand why this came so soon after: Longstreth needed to make this album. After the wrought structures present on Dirty Projectors, it’s no wonder he ratcheted up the brightness for as long as he could stand it – he’s delivering sunshine to burn out old ghosts using the tools he has. The proximity to the previous record means that this could be viewed as a rebound, but viewing it that way sells it short. Prose gives us a look at the new, more self-confident Dave Longstreth, willing to feel (and experiment with) everything all at once. It’s a great look for him.