Dirty Projectors Are Revived and Reimagined on ‘Lamp Lit Prose’

Dirty Projectors is the singular, ever-evolving musical project of enigmatic auteur Dave Longstreth. What started as a solo effort grew into a full band, which underwent lineup changes and radical reinventions before a distinct aesthetic took shape. Their signature sound combines R&B stylings with avant-garde sensibilities, and is known for its elaborate vocal harmonies, prog rock ambitions, erudite classical composition, and elements of Americana and world music. With a full band lineup, including three backup singers, the outfit achieved a commercial breakthrough on 2009’s “Bitte Orca.” After two more releases, the band lost members, including singer Amber Coffman, who Longstreth had dated. Reduced back to a solo act, Longstreth released a stripped-down, beat-driven, self-titled record, with every song about his breakup with Coffman. A year later, he has rebounded with “Lamp Lit Prose,” an album nearly as positive in outlook as its predecessor was negative, and a musical return to form.      

From the first note, the music flaunts Dirty Projectors’ trademark, with African slide-guitar stylings painstakingly crafted to complement every sung syllable. The line “I’m going to try and I know when” prompts trumpet blasts heralding the urgency of the moment, whereupon Longstreth and guest singer Syd repeating, “right now.” Syd’s vocals are layered and panned, recalling early lineups’ arrangements. Skittering drums enter, and all of the band’s characteristic tricks are at play. The song seems a statement of intent, demonstrating a return to the classic sound and a new energy. Single “Break-Thru” captures this energy, with the gleeful refrain, “She’s a break-thru,” brandishing Longstreth’s improved mood. It sounds like an alien remix of a conventional, contemporary R&B song. Clipped, squelching, distorted guitars burst and swell sporadically, conveying the feeling of being overwhelmed by one’s senses. It’s delightfully off time enough to keep you on your toes, but close enough to leave you vaguely grounded.

“That’s a Lifestyle” bares several similarities to celebrated single “Temecula Sunrise,” from “Bitte Orca,” Like the new album’s cover art, which revisits a theme tracing back to 2004’s “Slaves’ Graves and Ballads,” the recycled musical ideas are a repurposing to reflect a different stage in an artistic evolution. While “Temecula Sunrise” envisioned a Utopia inspired by the burgeoning artistic community in Temecula, California,” “That’s a Lifestyle” imagines a bleak world emerging from the current socio political environment. Longstreth clarifies the song’s political nature with the lines, “How could we risk the empire / As the apprentice descends into season survival?” Dismal as this may seem, things take on a positive light in the following song, “I Feel Energy.” Longstreth imagines, “The world’s about to end,” but goes on to assert,”We wholly depend / On our hope and love received and sent” Having met a “break-thru,” he now proclaims “I Feel Energy.” It’s a festive number with a silly, camp feel and frenetic, tribal percussion arbitrary split in stereo. Longstreth goes to town, crooning in falsetto, with diva interjections. Buzzing with his new energy, he goes on to express optimism in spite of the aforementioned dreary prospects in “Zombie Conqueror,” assuring his peers, “We see into the midnight in front of us.” The song excavates more old tricks, like guitar phrases that shift rhythm midway and play out longer than anticipated. The resulting, labyrinthe structure finds cathartic release in a sweeping chorus, driven by a deliciously gritty, overdriven guitar riff.

“Blue Bird” creates a reflective, romantic mood with elegant, intricate instrumentation. Beach Boys-style harmonies are paired with vocal and horn arrangements reminiscent of ‘70s soul. It’s a giddy love song with a childlike simplicity of sentiment: “I feel just fine on this bench with / You and me.” Longstreth elaborates on “I Found It In You,” “And all the painful dreams I failed to extinguish… Now they’ve led me to you and I’m singing.” At this point, one wonders whether he might be feeling too much energy. The song is a WTF moment even by Dirty Projectors standards, with a meter that defies you on every turn like the most technical metal. While Longstreth’s songwriting has always been ambitiously unorthodox, the last three albums tempered the experimentation for greater accessibility, and this might be the most extravagantly outlandish thing he’s done since 2006’s “New Attitude” EP.

In a moment of relief from the hyperactive eccentricity, the following song revisits the retro stylings that especially informed the sound of 2012’s “Swing Lo Magellan.” Longstreth dips into the early ‘60s pop songwriting toolbox for a few songs, harnessing emotive power from the induced nostalgia. He grows giddy on “What Is the Time,” professing, “I guess the planets align / And show me the one I am / I am the one who would love you.” “You’re the One,” recruits Rostam Batmanglij and Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold for a charming number with throwback vocal harmonies captured on vintage microphones. Their subdued presence in the otherwise crisp mix mimics the presence of distant memories. In this context, Longstreth reckons, “l’ll always have love for what came before / And with you I feel it more and more.” On this note, he proceeds to take a wider retrospective look. Reimagine a sentimental nightclub-set scene from an old Woody Allen film, except with the house jazz band rendered as a high definition cartoon, and directorial duties taken over halfway through by David Lynch; that’s the gist of the sound. As the instruments trudge along a spacious, dreamy backdrop, past impeding, reversed snares and intrusive discordant counterpoints, Longstreth finds himself unperturbed by his bad memories. Instead of resenting them, he declares the titular line,“(I Wanna) Feel It All.”

Ending on this note of empowerment, “Lamp Lit Prose” is the very antithesis of the last album. The lyrics reveal an enthralled, inspired and invigorated spirit, and the songs exude this energy in their force, scale, and tone, which could explain a return to the manic grandiosity of “Bitte Orca.” The last two releases, each of which found Dirty Projectors curtailing their ambitions, and exploring different genres, were both outstanding albums with their own attributes. The return to classic form isn’t necessarily an improvement, but the new record does seem exceptionally ambitious and inspired. Little quirky touches and compositional experiments are crammed into virtually every second of running time, creating a sensory onslaught that is constantly engaging. It can occasionally feel like an ADD case study in which a line of thought barely begins to reveal itself before going off on a tangent into outer space. Still, the album is at least as fresh and  exciting, as any previous work, and the new positive outlook is a welcome change.

Lamp Lit Prose” is available July 13 on Apple Music.