Dirty Projectors Try Too Hard to Sound Carefree on Lamp Lit Prose
If not crazy in love, Dave Longstreth has been struck dumb: “She is so dreamy / That she got features on Fellini” and “Archimedes Palimpsest / Just hanging out all Julian Casablancas.” I really hope this relationship works out, for there’s no taking back a line like “she keeps it 100 in the shade.” How else does one explain “Break-Thru” except for the myopia of infatuation that short-circuits all critical faculties and blocks out eyerolls, testifying to a new love’s uniqueness by reducing it to the most quirky of its quirks? Either “Break-Thru” is the cruelest Vampire Weekend parody that nobody asked for, or it’s based on a true story. The rest of Lamp Lit Prose is fanciful and feel-good enough to assume the latter.
Knocked out in a year, emotionally vibrant, reunited with acoustic guitars and featuring more big-name female guest vocalists than a late-’90s Bad Boy album, Lamp Lit Prose troubleshoots everything that made last year’s Dirty Projectors so divisive. Calling a Dirty Projectors album “divisive” is redundant, but it wasn’t necessarily because Longstreth reduced the most beloved and successful iteration of the band to its original form as a solo project, diving into the avant-R&B of collaborators D∆WN and Solange. And it wasn’t necessarily because he rhymed “Kanye” with “Taconic” in falsetto on “Little Bubble” or made a brief foray into Anticon.-style rapping on “Keep Your Name.”
He didn’t help his cause by citing 2009, when Dirty Projectors and their immediate friends ruled indie rock, as the last year the genre felt “progressive” and damaged it further by calling the new scene—remember this was 2017—“bad and boujee.” His Instagram buddy Robin Pecknold and Rostam appear on the short and sweet electro-folk throwback “You’re the One,” and that’s about the only part of Prose tethered to the talk around Dirty Projectors. The cover directly invokes the indelible color scheme of Bitte Orca; “Break-Thru” is an abomination but at least hints at a sense of humor. The frilly guitar runs of “That’s a Lifestyle” and Zeppelin-heavy drums of “Zombie Conqueror” evoke the organic sweetness and off-kilter pop of Swing Lo Magellan.
If Dirty Projectors are no longer indie A-listers with the expectation of having each album provide shapeshifting genius, the upside is Lamp Lit Prose sounds like something Longstreth wanted to make rather than had to. His capacity for H&M-friendly indie was teased on “Gun Has No Trigger,” and “Right Now” and “That’s a Lifestyle” are so likeable it’s easy to miss how Longstreth’s politics are the least confrontational thing about Lamp Lit Prose. They speak to the low hum of manageable terror that seeps into our everyday discourse, but the music is breezy and slick, and why shouldn’t it be? The melting ice caps, corrupt senators, and collapse of human decency aren’t going to be fixed in a day, but “I Feel Energy,” “Bluebird” and “I Found It in U” are reminders that people haven’t stopped falling head over heels for each other—though they may refrain from phrasing it as, “I’m in love for the first time / The universe becomes my mom and my dad.”
But to the same degree that Longstreth can’t resist including terms like “Sartrean bad faith” in what appears to be a candid discussion about indie rock, Lamp Lit Prose can never fully inhabit the “carefree” concept. Case in point, the clear standout “I Feel Energy”: The swirling brass and tingly percussion make for a kinetic piece of Off the Wall worship that can’t quite dispel the notion that it’s too on the nose, telling rather than showing, a song inspired by the idea of feeling energy instead of just feeling it. Would it still come off like that if it were an Amber Mark song featuring Dave Longstreth, or is this a case of his reputation preceding him? Depends if the rhythm track were still just as fussy and stiff as it is here, opposed to tight.
Likewise, the “collaborative” aspect of Lamp Lit Prose is a bit of a feint. Syd is given a bit part on “Right Now,” a virtual punch-in of one word amidst Longstreth’s mutated croak. Haim is somewhere within the acrobatic one-man vocal volleys of “That’s a Lifestyle”—at least that’s what the credits say. Empress Of is tasked with pronouncing “conqueror” incorrectly, a quirk for quirk’s sake, to say nothing of Longstreth-isms like “everyone snaps like Autotune into the grid.” There’s no doubt it’s all sincere, but Dirty Projectors was sincere as well; it’s just that doing “effortless” makes Longstreth sound like he’s trying way harder.