Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is Lamp Lit Prose, the new album from Dirty Projectors.
Depending on your perspective, last year’s Dirty Projectors was either a relentlessly inward looking (and myopic?) and dark breakup album, or, along with Amber Coffman’s City of No Reply, was a worked-shoot about the dissolution of a relationship, a pair of formerly romantic musicians making competing albums about the different sides of a relationship’s end. The fact that Projectors main man Dave Longstreth co-wrote and produced most of City Of No Reply complicated matters; Coffman refusing to discuss the details of their relationship and saying they were no longer on speaking terms did so even further. Longstreth’s album, while being raw and open about the breakup in its first three-quarters, ends in a way that makes the reading that it was dark and myopic inadequate: “Cool Your Heart” and “I See You” are about coming out of a breakup, and finding someone new, the way that it feels like a new relationship can take over your life completely. Longstreth was coming out of the down times around Dirty Projectors and City of No Reply, and was making some of the most overtly happy and lovesick music of his career by the end of the album.
So, it should come as little surprise that Lamp Lit Prose, the ninth Dirty Projectors full-length, is a flowery, well, prose-filled album about all the ways that falling for a new lover feels. Love can feel like being overtaken by a hoard (“Zombie Conqueror”), it can feel like someone changed your entire existence (“Break-Thru”) and it can leave you unsure of yourself (“What Is The Time”). New love can feel like it negates the relationships you had before that you thought were love (“I Found It In U”), and, even though it’s a cliche, it can feel like birds are singing for you and them (“Blue Bird”). Last album, Longstreth was chronicling night drives after arguments; here he’s wondering if he has what it takes to be the person his partner deserves. Lamp Lit Prose is the closest thing Dirty Projectors will ever have to a “love” album; it’s a front-to-back look at new love with all the attendant cheese that comes with it.
Sonically, Longstreth further retreats from the more acoustic flourishes of Swing Lo Magellan, and doubles down on the war Klaxons of Dirty Projectors; the beats are loud, the guitar strings are high, the percussion hits at obtuse angles. He goes from weirdo Motown deconstructions (“What Is The Time”), to an electronic sketch that sounds like it could have been written for Robin Thicke, to power chords and guitar solos on “I Found It In U.” Where he relied on manipulated version of his own voice to give him harmony on Dirty Projectors, here, Longstreth enlists Haim (uncredited in the track list, but they sing harmony a few times), Empress Of, Syd from the Internet, Amber Mark and Rostam and Robin Pecknold to lend backing vocals and additional heft to his compositions. Longstreth saves the most aurally intriguing song for last; “(I Wanna) Feel it All” opens with muted woodwinds, and slowly piles in sparse percussion and vocal harmonies. It’s like Steely Dan filtered through trip-hop.
The long narrative arc of Dirty Projectors is instructive here; the “band” started as Dave Longstreth being alone in his dorm room making odd concept albums that he never expected to have any kind of audience for (The Getty Address especially), before experiencing an unlikely breakthrough via his first album recorded with other people that was equally as weird as his earlier ones (Rise Above, a “cover” of a Black Flag album that was made entirely from memory). Bitte Orca was about how opening yourself to the outside world could make you make R&B jams with your girlfriend, and Swing Lo Magellan was a stripping back of all the artifice, a straight-ahead album about domesticity and love. Then the breakup happened with Coffman, and Longstreth ended up in writing rooms with Kanye and Solange, writing pop songs for an audience much vaster than the one for any Dirty Projectors album, while simultaneously fighting the urge to retreat back into himself for Dirty Projectors. Lamp Lit Prose might end up being the least well-reviewed Dirty Projectors album in the last 10 years, but that’s going to entirely be because the emotions and mood Longstreth is shooting for here are less esoteric and more outwardly happy than anything he’s done.
This should be celebrated for what it is; one of indie rock’s most risk-taking bands taking a huge trust fall: making an album about love that doesn’t eschew the gushy stuff.
Andrew Winistorfer is VMP’s Classics & Country Director, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need In Your Collection and The Best Record Stores In The United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 20 VMP releases, and co-produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Philadelphia International Records, The Story of Quincy Jones, The Story of Impulse and the VMP Classics release of Nat Turner Rebellion's Laugh to Keep From Crying, and executive produced the VMP Anthology The Story of Vanguard. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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