David Longstreth has made a post-modern pop album of romantic sentiments and apocalyptic backdrops. Nick Bollinger listens.
There are many ways to make a pop song - and unmake it.
In just the first minute of ‘Break Thru’, the album’s first single, you hear a lovely little Madagascan-style guitar lick, a love lyric set against staccato chords that feel like they are being ground out of a deejay’s turntable, a clickety percussion loop and random blasts of harmonica.
There might once have been a straightforward pop song here, only you get the sense that David Longstreth, the one consistent member of this fifteen-year-old indie pop project, has made it his mission to see just how many ways he can pull a song apart and put it back together before it loses those essential qualities: a hook, a tale, a tune. And the answer turns out to be quite a bit.
Even a pretty Scots-Irish melody like the one that opens the record (‘Right Now’) finds itself startlingly recontextualised.
If you’ve been following Dirty Projectors for a while, you’ll be familiar with Longstreth’s approach. If not, then Lamp Lit Prose is not a bad place to start. It’s certainly a happier place than the one depicted on his last album, simply titled Dirty Projectors. That was, in crude terms, a breakup album, addressing – at times in confrontingly intimate detail - the end of his relationship with former bandmate Amber Coffman.
But evidently the time for blame and recrimination is over. The sky is blue, the sun shines, it’s spring, and he’s in love again. There’s the absurdly romantic ‘Bluebird’. With bluebirds singing and lilacs blooming, it is almost Hallmark card in its imagery. Only Longstreth colours those images from such a bold musical palette that the song’s more conventional qualities dissolve in an appealing if unpredictable blend of harmonies and horns.
He does come close to traditional folk-rock though, on ‘You’re The One’, another of his romantic reveries in which he’s joined by fellow indie rockers Robin Pecknold and Rostam, from Fleet Foxes and Vampire Weekend respectively. And listening to this, I can hear their future as indie rock’s answer to Crosby, Stills and Nash.
Those aren’t the only guest voices. In the absence of Coffman, who often provided a droll counterpoint to Longstreth’s more acrobatic vocals, he’s called on a cast of extras, from hip-hopper Syd of the Internet who provides the single-syllable choruses of ‘Right Now’, to sister trio Haim who lend their Californian harmonies to ‘That’s A Lifestyle’.
It’s one of a few songs here in which Longstreth’s attention turns away from romantic bliss and towards an impending apocalypse of crumbling empires and global warming. Once introduced, the contrast between a darkening political landscape and the sunny romantic one works in a similar way to the tension between musical genres.
Flowers are soon blooming again though, both lyrically and melodically, when rising R&B star Amber Mark joins him in on ‘I Feel Energy’, an overt homage to Michael Jackson.
That’s just one example here of an R&B strain that has long run through Dirty Projectors’ music, and it’s in these moments that it becomes apparent why David Longstreth was called on to work on Solange’s great R&B/hip-hop album A Seat At The Table. There’s a soul man inside this indie producer of post-modern pop.
Yet on Lamp Lit Prose he never lets one side dominate for long. And if there’s usually at least two things going on at once, often seemingly at odds with each other, that’s ultimately what makes Longstreth more than just a traditional songwriter with a strong melodic sense and a gift for memorable lyric lines. He also understands friction, how it creates fire, and how to turn that fire into remarkable records like this.