A month ago, the Dirty Projectors released the first song from their forthcoming Swing Lo Magellan. According to bandmaster Dave Longstreth, this title references both the contemporary manufacturer of GPS devices and the sixteenth-century Portuguese explorer Ferdinand, whose strait nowadays separates Tierra del Fuego from the South American mainland. It follows Bitte Orca (2009) and Mount Wittenberg Orca, (2010) an EP collaboration with Bjork. Bitte is German for ‘please’ and an orca is a whale, while Mount Wittenberg is a mountain on the Point Reyes National Seashore, just north of San Francisco, from which Amber Coffman—one of the three female singers in the band, with Angel Deradoorian and Haley Dekle—once saw a whale.
The single, “Gun Has No Trigger”, also continues and intensifies the most recent phase of the band’s aesthetic development; this phase might be described as one of simplification or purification. It first manifested itself on Rise Above (2008), Longstreth’s recreation of Black Flag’s Damaged album (1981), though it was then quite mild and infrequent, Longstreth having abandoned his earlier penchant for radical divergences one album to the next—as between Slaves Graves and Ballads (2004) and The Getty Address (2005), the former a young man’s muted ruminations on his peculiar blessings and burdens of the spirit, the latter the complex and ironic elaboration of a new American myth, whose own title exceeds Magellan’s compilation, pointing firstly towards the fields of southern Pennsylvania and then to Getty Oil and its founder’s looming villa, now a museum, in Pacific Palisades. These divergences were partly the result of the tonal, and often thematic, unity of the earlier albums. While Mount Wittenberg would indeed recover some internal consistency, structured as it is around an imagined dialogue between Coffman (Longstreth) and the whales (Coffman, Deradoorian, Dekle), the band’s work from 2007 often runs together. That year is the turning point in Longstreth’s decade-or-so of playing under this moniker. For it inaugurated the two still-dominant aesthetic trends in their music, one being the reductionism that has reached its height in “Gun Has No Trigger”, the other being the often marvelous juxtaposition of Longstreth’s always precarious singing with the girls’ refinement. Coffman joined the band that year. Longstreth had just begun experimenting with what would become the band’s distinctive technique—the Mediaeval French choral style of hocketing, which splits a single melody across two or more voices, who then sing their parts in alternation, and is found prominently on Bitte Orca’s “Remade Horizon” and Rise Above’s “Gimme Gimme Gimme”, in great subtlety.
The first inklings of the aesthetic of “Gun Has No Trigger” are the bah-bah-BAH drums on Rise Above’s titular song. They vary only in intensity, fading into silence in the repressed middle of the song, where Longstreth hums—“we-ee-ee are ti-ired of your abuse”—returning to strength in its closing measures. A representative of the complex thesis to this antithesis can be found in the title track of The Glad Fact (2003), Longstreth’s second album (after 2002’s Morning Better Last!). “The Glad Fact” has, on my count, at least three layers of drums: the first a simple bah-bah-bah-bah, the second a circular series that complements the first, and the third a number of variations that extend each bar beyond its appointed limit, as though exhaling more than the lungs have held. These cycles accelerate and decelerate independently over the course of the song, and yet retain both their exhilarating tension and their common center throughout.
This sort of precariousness we find in Longstreth’s singing. He extends and bends his voice to the border of collapse and vapidity without crossing it; his song is often a warble, like the song of the muse-finches who inhabit the Stevensian white face of the earth, after the apocalypse, on “Temecula Sunrise”, and who wait in an empty parking lot at the end of Getty to scold the mythic American wender, Don Henley, for having colonized himself. It also characterizes Longstreth’s relationship to his forbears. They include, most immediately, the Talking Heads, Bob Dylan, and Bjork, and more essentially, Gustav Mahler, what has been named “West African music” but never more specifically, and the poetry of Wallace Stevens—like Longstreth, a Connecticuter, a grand ironist, and persistent understater of “simple seeing”.
These ambitions had led Longstreth to a number of magnificent ends. Getty’s instrumentation is an original piece of classical music digitally clipped into a sort of glitch-opera, which stutters and flutters in equal measure. Because each song’s ur-song is the same, sound-rhymes are prominent—between “I Sit on the Ridge at Dusk” and “Warholian Wigs”, for instance. As is characteristic, Longstreth intermixes his classical musicological study with altered elements of the lo-fi Portland scene, where he came into his musical own while on leave from Yale. “I Will Truck” has his muse-finches subsumed into the very beat, which skips left and right like a bird-head, like Henley’s own endless, vain cross-continental wandering. In “D. Henley’s Dream”, the heads of beer bottles sound the hero’s woozy Monteczuman sleep. Cash registers clank in the blotted gift-shop at Gettysburg Henley despairs over on “Drilling Profitably”.
Longstreth’s lyrics are at their strongest on Getty, too. An excellent representative can be found on “Warholian Wigs”: “With a longing upward and out,/ To meet those rosy slopes,/ And explode into them/ Before they erode.” Henley is contemplating leaping off the ridge on which he begins his journey, expended and depressed by the sight of the valley below, whose sublime appearance he cannot conceive and so reduces to falsity. He continues: “My star could crest/ Parabolically/ Over the etched stream/ And its etching.” His assonance is particularly delightful, here, and the way it oscillates from line to line.
A final element of this album which should be remarked upon, and which juxtaposes strongly with the simplicity of “Gun Has No Trigger”, is the album’s choral motif. On half of the songs, Henley’s (Longstreth) singing alternates with a chorus of finches (a group of about ten women). The chorus sings in near-perfect unison. What they sing is nearly indecipherable, for Longstreth has modulated the vowel sounds of their original lyrics. On “I Will Truck”, for instance, “The leaves will spiral down one by one” becomes “Eh leve wuol speh hey raal don aon on”. As it did for the Greeks, the chorus functions here both to comment on the action and speak to the hero from the spiritual center of the music. In an astonishing finale, Henley is subsumed into the chorus. He sings with the finches.
“Gun Has No Trigger” does not have such complexity, and its only apparent influences are the opening credits from Casino Royale and the closest portions of outer space. One hopes it became the single on the principle of commerce, instead of that of representation or indeed of quality. It has three sections, each with the same basic musical progression—of gradual heightening and intensification. This progression is never so explicit in their oeuvre, where strength was always found internally and not in the exploitation of convention. The song would seem to be, on one level, about a will toward suicide. Each section builds to the moment at which it would occur—“you hold a gun to your head”, “the safety’s off”—but, of course, “the gun has no trigger”. The correlation of psychologized sound, and, more insidiously, the style of singing, to narrative situation is perhaps the first principle of popular music, in which threats are sung gruffly and lost love is sung lost-lovingly. A predictable heightening is pursued for effect. The self-sufficiency of language and poetry is forsaken. This is especially apparent when “Gun Has No Trigger” is contrasted with “Warholian Wigs”, or, more significantly, “Two Brown Finches”, which contains this delightful refrain: “We drank a two liter of orange crush”. That line is sung perhaps a half-dozen or a dozen times, specially varied in each instance; the words’ complex innards are evinced. It is an effort in modesty to great effect.
The musical parentage of “Gun Has No Trigger” is firstly “Rise Above”, the origins of this aesthetic phase. Its drums do not even vary in intensity, static in even the three climaxes. It, too, has a repressed center, the music reduced between the second and third sections; whereas 2008’s version was audacious enough to become completely silent and to quite magnificently transform that silence into the fertile ground of the song’s revitalization, in 2012 it is only a cutting-out, a digital deletion or muting. While the themes of vacuous suburbia and perception invoke a great deal of Bitte Orca, the complete absence of guitar-work here suggests a repudiation of its musical heritage; contrast Longstreth’s adventurous noodling on “Temecula Sunrise”, where he shifts time signatures at least four times, or the mangled solo on “Useful Chamber”.
But its most immediate origins are of course Mount Wittenberg Orca, and most obviously the auto-tuning of the girls’ voices. The single replicates the lyrical structure of “No Embrace” but loses the texture of that song’s apotheoses. The mythic dimension its predecessor finds in imagining the (visual) discourse between a whale family and a whale-watcher is also removed. “Gun Has No Trigger” begins as follows: “You’d see the oceans swell/ And the mountains shook;/ You’d see a million colors/ If you really looked.” Perhaps this is Longstreth’s reflexive criticism of Wittenberg, but it is more accurately a description of the way in which this single comes up short. The new lyrics include such banalities as “distance, justice, power”; the old, those of “When the World Comes to an End”, conveyed these same ideas by the simple sight of a whale’s “slight smile” which cannot be shook.
The extraordinary variety and strength of Longstreth’s contributions over the past decade must not only allow him great critical leeway but also give the critic continuing hope for the remainder of the album and for the Dirty Projectors’ future work. I, personally, do not despair. There are redemptive elements. The first of these is something that always bears repeating: despite its position in Longstreth’s discography, it is still better than virtually all other music released this year, or last. The first verse, and especially its bridge—“Now, quick, the night draws near;/ her curtain spreads quicker”—are less abstract lyrically and less sterile vocally than the subsequent two. Nat Baldwin’s bass playing, while soft, offers a number of small pleasures and surprises, which is nothing less than expected; his subtle invention has complemented Longstreth’s greater conspicuity for, I think, eight years now, and his solo releases—Most Valuable Player (2008) and People Changes (2011)—are excellent. But these, and the others I have not seen, are still not enough to make one not wish for even the thematically similar, but far more accomplished, earlier work, as on Slaves Graves and The Glad Fact. It is not enough to make one not wish for the imaginative strength of Getty’s ecstatic end, when katydids call back and forth to each other from the edges of the lot and cicadas bristle rhythmically, when Henley is subsumed into the chorus of finches and sings with them. Only Longstreth knows where that energy has gone, and only he can summon it back. For both the sake of the spirit and the survival of exciting music in the American mainstream, one hopes he does.