For Dirty Projectors, the Medium Is the Message
All art, in all mediums, is ruled by two elemental forces, two axes upon which all work finds its determinate definition: "form" and "content." For some artists, the allure of pure form overwhelms (see: Philip Glass, Alfred Hitchcock, et al.); for others, expression of content takes primacy (Yukio Mishima, Otis Redding, et al.); while the very greatest of artists (Thelonious Monk, Herman Melville, Akira Kurosawa, Francis Bacon, William Shakespeare, James Brown, et al.) achieve stunning marriages of both. Only the essentially foolish or, in the most charitable examples, the "naive" or "outsider" artists do not actively mind these forces in their own work and proceed based on their own judgment of what is most valuable.
Brooklyn-based experimental pop band Dirty Projectors is inarguably one of the most self-engaged bands working today, and for this they should be commended. As a project of such active artistic consciousness, titles in the world of their work are invariably weighted with meaning. The name "Dirty Projectors" itself communicates a great deal about the foundational focus of the group—throughout their long and densely prolific career, the dissection of form and the dressing and distortion of content-delivery have dominated their work. Their 2007 album Rise Above, the record that in many ways initiated the group's present momentum, was an exercise in experimental song-production; based only on a lyric sheet retrieved from childhood, guitarist/songwriter/singer Dave Longstreth "covered" the songs of Black Flag's classic Damaged album with entirely new melodies and arrangements. These sorts of high/experimental art methodologies in composing work ultimately designed to land as pop music have become the defining aspect of Dirty Projectors. Their new album, Bitte Orca (the group's most excitedly received album to date and first album for semi-major Domino), finds the group on a new level of engagement on the front lines of Form vs. Content.
In a recent interview with Time Out New York, Longstreth stated, "It's really, totally a goal of mine to take simple elements and combine them in a way that feels new." And indeed, the true victory of Bitte Orca proves to be its sweetening distillation of the wildly varied elements of the group's previous catalog. The faux-juju/Malian guitars, the bursts of Deerhoof-ish bombast, the post–new music chamber arrangements, and the overrich jazz melodiousness are all present, but rather than the songs feeling subjugated by their component parts, as has sometimes been the case in the past, the components feel happily and gloriously submissive to the compositions. Put simply, the songs on Bitte Orca are not just greater than the sum of their parts; they achieve such a level of pop euphoria that they manage to render invisible the wildly diverse and unusual elements in play. (This is a rare and remarkable feat, and one most toweringly achieved by Prince, an important point of reference to the work of Projectors.)
Lyrically, despite the oblique strategies apparently employed on Bitte Orca (they have spoken in interviews of employing charts of pop-music clichés to produce some of the album's text), the album largely maintains a simple air of sun-dappled joyfulness. The record's lyrics are nearly always successful in feeling visceral, even if when inspected closely they often reveal a degree of tinkerly emotional distance. The baldly romantic "Temecula Sunrise" and the icy, RZA-reminiscent "Useful Chamber" achieve peaks of utter loveliness, while the closing, elegiac ballad "Fluorescent Half Dome" brings the band the closest it has yet come to the easygoing/ecstatic quality of the best of modern R&B.
In the same Time Out interview, Longstreth spoke admiringly (and somewhat longingly) of the transcendent confluence of complexity and emotionality achieved in the work of artists like John Coltrane. What Coltrane and other touchstones like Michael Jackson (RIP, eternally) did, and what Dirty Projectors do now, is not synthesizing the intellect with emotion, but developing and refining the intellectual aspects of music to the point where they become emotional. Rather than using form to present any driving concepts or feelings, they pursue a space where the form itself can enthrall the mind, body, and spirit. Though Dirty Projectors' music remains for now closer to the intellect than to the infinite, their pursuit of this musical space seems clearer than ever, and with Bitte Orca they have made a tremendous advancement toward achieving this elevated ideal.