Review: Dirty Projectors, Dirty Projectors

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Oh God, why. What the hell is this nonsense. I thought Dave Longstreth was too good for this Bon Iver/Father John Misty crap. Going all glitchy is only a matter of time for pop musos these days, sure. Especially in regards to indie rock, where the prog impulse that groups like the Projectors helped make cool again in the late-‘00s seems to be running low on new ideas with the guitars-bass-drums setup, for whatever reasons. And Longstreth’s music was jumpy from the get-go, so it seems like glitchiness would come naturally to him. And yet the way he executes it here is like a waking nightmare, so beige and overbearing and tuneless and fucking boring that it makes you feel like an idiot for even trying to parse it.

A lot of reviews are leaning hard on the lyrics, appealing to the “personal” hip-news-story slant of the romantic and professional break-up of Longstreth and Amber Coffman, who played guitar and sang backup on the three good Dirty Projectors albums. If you want more on that stuff, you’ll have to look elsewhere, ‘cause frankly I don’t give a crap. Not because lyrics aren’t important to the overall effect of the music — lyrics are sound, after all, and it’s idiotic to ignore them completely, as some are wont to do — but because on this album they’re generally either (a) cringe-worthy, or (b) irrelevant, given Longstreth’s pliant, fidgety way of singing and melody-making. The words and singing on Bitte Orca, Swing Lo Magellan, and even Rise Above, with its re-purposing of Black Flag lyrics, floated on a very fine line between endearing and embarrassing, but here Longstreth seems to have finally overbalanced and made something grotesque.

Maybe it really does boil down to Coffman’s absence. With Coffman, and especially with Angel Deradoorian too, Dirty Projectors music was supple, colorful, dynamic, somehow leisurely no matter how jumpy it got. There was enough breathing room between Longstreth singing about Gatorade or whatever, vocally and instrumentally, that the guy’s proud faith in the beauty of the mundane was tempered accordingly by the earthier and more graceful singing of the women. But right from the start of the new album, you realize something’s gone horribly wrong. “Keep Your Name”, I was told before I listened, features a sample from Dan Deacon, that obnoxious electro-spazz guy who we’ve all forgotten for good reason, so it didn’t bode well from the beginning. And then you throw the song on and you’re met with a slow, stripped-down arrangement of nondescript “sensitive” piano chords, warm gentle thunking hand-drum tones, and Longstreth warbling absurdly through heavy, heavy Auto-Tune with the corniest most self-pitying words of his career, and that includes the last album he tried to do this glitch stuff with, 2005’s Getty Address.

To be fair, it’s not like that opening track has no melodic interest, and in fact I’ve been singing the “keep your name” chorus itself, and the high squealing vocal loop that keeps rewinding and expanding with its harmony, for days. But I’ve been singing it in a way that’s more mocking than respectful, since the tune is fine but it sounds so fucking goofy anyway — surely not the intended effect. Sorry, I just can’t lend the words any serious empathy if they’re sung like Gene Ween’s country voice. Mind you, it’s not like the words were salvageable in the first place, with the beat attempting this Matthew Herbert thing while Longstreth raps unbrokenly “Your heart is saying clothing line, my body said Naomi Klein, No Logo we shared kisses and vision.” It’s hard to adequately describe the horror of it. Not to mention that “What I want from art is truth, what you want is fame” might be the most insufferable breakup line from a talented musician since the first verse of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You”. “What I want from art is truth, what you want is fame,” Christ almighty. Here I’ve been, all these years, just wanting entertainment!

And the rest of the album goes like that, except without even “Keep Your Name”’s modest level of melodic interest, and it’s been hard to sustain attention even after seven or eight listens. The supple dynamic shadings of earlier Projectors material is gone; everything’s annoyingly crisp, with lots of things at the front of the mix that shouldn’t be and Longstreth’s pitch-shifted voice running near-constantly throughout. He never shuts up, frankly, to such a degree that his voice in “Ascent Through the Clouds” — briefly interrupted by an interesting microhouse-y children’s murmur fragment — sounds like Bo Burnham’s impression of Kanye’s on-stage sermons. His voice simply doesn’t sound good in Auto-Tune, and backing himself up with squeaks and squeals is no substitute for Coffman (or Deradoorian). “Death Spiral” is a similar jumble of a bad Justin Timberlake falsetto while this loud woozy digi-bass dominates everything — sprinkly piano trills, flamenco guitar fills — without conveying any of the sheer visceral heft and color that someone like Kanye (and very few others) can bring to that strategy — and yes, I’d say a song that starts with an airplane crash and imagery of broken wings flying in spirals should have some visceral power to it. “Work Together” is the same flavorless pap, with a dissonantly hopscotching synth bass farting its way through the “tuba” preset from a cheap ‘80s Yamaha knockoff. All you’re left to think is “Wow, who’d’ve thought Centipede Hz would unleash this level of tripe.”

It’s strange that there isn’t more melody to go around, given that Longstreth helped write Rihanna/Kanye/McCartney’s “FourFiveSeconds”, which was only the greatest soul song in decades. But there are only flashes of that talent here, specifically the chamber violins washed over by speckling disco keyboards in “Little Bubble”, which creates a pleasantly disorienting sensation (lovely piano-string interplay in the key line: “We had our own little bubble…for a while”), or “Cool Your Heart”, which sounds a bit like a second-drawer Frank Ocean track with a staccato keyboard blipping in threes like a stoned blue sky. And “Up in Hudson” is easily the best of the new pieces, with a simple, lovely intro of layered horns settling into a contented sunset on the Taconic Parkway and a beautiful two-minute coda where Longstreth finally stops singing and builds up some buzzing, sawing, woogling guitar textures over a tribal drum-circle groove. It makes up for the irritating lyrics in the middle that remind me to stay the hell away from Brooklyn.

Those atypically pretty closing minutes of “Up in Hudson” bring up another point, however crude it might sound, which is that Longstreth should probably pick up the guitar again. I’m not saying that music played manually by human beings is preferable to music programmed by human beings into machines — well, actually I would say that, but that’s more of a philosophical argument, and certainly that’s not where the original musical ideas are coming from any more; anyway, I’m not saying it here — but on the basis of the new record, Longstreth doesn’t inject any new ideas into the machines; any soul, any color, any humor. The guy has a wonderful playing style that reminds me a little of Robert Quine in how he’s able to wrench all the weight up his fretboard without necessarily even strumming, and then follow those roars with quick little spasms of thin, clustered tones. Think of the way Bitte Orca centrepiece “Useful Chamber” surges to its climaxes, or the rippling, invigorating broken phrasing in the middle of “Depression”; he sometimes sounds like he’s rushing to catch up to himself, and yet it somehow works brilliantly within the demented logic of the song structures themselves. On the new album? All gone. (While we’re on the subject of instrumentation, I’d also cite the departure of drummer Brian McOmber as part of what was missing from Swing Lo Magellan, which had some lovely moments but only one song — the small, conventional, sweetly melodic title track, which was mixed like something from John Wesley Harding — that worked all the way through.)

A few weeks ago, Longstreth made a well-circulated Instagram post where he very articulately wondered whether modern indie-rock was overly “refined and effete,” bad for both “miming a codified set of sounds & practices whose significance is inherited rather than discovered or reflective of the world as we experience it now” and bad “like [Sartrean] bad faith, outwardly obedient to an expired paradigm that we know in our hearts makes basically no sense.” He was right to wonder, and I agree on both points, but personally I’d still take refined and effete over this kind of goofy overreach. Someone like Kanye is able to use all this warbly Auto-Tune and exaggerated digitalism because he layers it into colorful masses of sound, so that you’re forced to ruminate on why all the voices or squelchy horns or strings or whatever are blending over each other. The music serves the grandeur of the emotions contained in the words — even when the emotions seem to be silly or trivial. But even with his more modest ambitions than Kanye, Longstreth seems to have skipped over the part where you have a sense of humor about these sounds, like Daniel Lopatin or Animal Collective do on their better days, or some sort of philosophical or religious ideal to the whole thing, like Sufjan Stevens. Hell, if you want this pitch-shifted effect done much prettier in indie-rock, the now-forgotten Morning Benders did a lovely pop song called “Live It Up” that everyone thought was laughable at the time, and yet five years later we’re taking this style dead-on seriously (despite that the new stuff is less tuneful and generally less interesting). Perhaps indie’s prog phase has entered the same era of self-indulgent dithering that ‘70s progressive rock moved into after 1974. I dunno, I hope Longstreth is happy and hope this album is something he needed to get out of his system before he goes back to making good music again. But on the basis of this, and on Animal Collective’s last album, there may simply not be many promising places left to go in this direction, not that I have any better suggestions. C PLUS