The beginning of my annual summer reading heavily involved Lizzy Goodman’s Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth And Rock And Roll In New York City 2001-2011 (thanks to my good friend Trent for the recommendation). The oral history of this illustrious-and oftentimes lawless-scene is filled with classic excerpts about New York’s cultural landmarks and drug-filled escapades from some of the era’s greatest rockstars. The book highlights a turning point in the music industry; the final time when labels were the threshold for a glorious future. It was the calm before Napster’s storm (DM me if you want to read my thesis about 21st century music democratization), but also the last great era of coke-sniffing debauchery and foot-stomping garage rock.
Gentrification-as it so often does-sucked the soul out of the city by the mid-2000s. Greedy politicians like Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg enacted military-style policing that basically criminalized any and all street life (drugs being a common focus again). Goodman briefly brushes over these events in the final leg of her captivating tale with firsthand accounts of banal luxury-style housing during the mid-2000s in place of the countless clubs and music studios that defined such an electrifying time period. The physical allurement was insidiously banished by merciless lawmakers who couldn’t stand to see their city beaming with kinetic companionship and cultural participation. There was even an outdated “no dancing” rule in numerous clubs as Giuliani took the helm as a certified rat.
The post-punk dancehall aesthetic of early-2000s New York City eventually faded as bands like The Strokes and Interpol morphed into national luminaries. Rock in the mid-2000s began to take a more compositional route as Vampire Weekend and Dirty Projectors brought outside influences into their own musicality. And while neither band is from New York City (both lived in Brooklyn early on), their association with the Big Apple created much-needed blog hype within the underground. Their off-kiltered approach to production and songwriting quickly became a breath of fresh air in a city contaminated with million-dollar glass windows (as highlighted in the book).
David Longstreth is one of the most essential songwriters of the millennium because he knows how to unravel the nuances of human growth and connection, even as the outer world fades into one gray blob. He had to think outside of the box as the environment surrounding him was being overrun by emotionally-bankrupt robots. Longstreth asks existential questions like, “Isn’t life just some mirage of the world before the world?” He contextualizes love and creates figurative imagery that’s usually juxtaposed by a mollified violin or fractured guitar clinks (“Kiss me with your mouth open/For love, better than wine/For your cologne is sweetly fragrant”).
Since their ultimate classic Bitta Orca, the Dirty Projectors have taken various U-Turns. Longstreth’s lasting legacy (outside of his challenged production choices and physiological songwriting) involves an innate ability to utilize as many resources as possible, even if it means changing the outlook of the band (which he’s done countless times). In theory, his prime should’ve probably climaxed at Swing Lo Magellan, but his everlasting curiosity and open-minded collaboration will always reign supreme. In 2020 alone, Longstreth plans on releasing five EPs over the course of the year; each with different vocalists and varying concepts.
His first installment-Windows Open-features Maia Friedman as the lead harmonizer and beacon for Longstreth’s careful considerations. He continues to ask objectively universal questions like “Who could afford not to be a part of what we’re pushing toward?” Or, “who could serve a master who sits over lord?” He never obscures differing perspectives in his writing. He ponders the thought of someone helping him or hurting him, and what the consequences are for either. The guitar riffs are more lethargic and folksy, rather than splintered to the point of almost feeling digitized (like on Bitta Orca).
On Flight Tower; the second EP from the Projectors this year; Longstreth collaborates with Felicia Douglass (who worked on the self-titled album from 2017) to inject some R&B/soul into the production and melodies. Longstreth is no doubt a versatile intellectual, as shown once again in his ability to reach deep within his sub-conscious for brutal interrogation. Douglass and Longstreth start “Inner World” with succulent inflections and more empirical loitering-“What if I don’t know the way to get back to the way I was?/What if I don’t wanna stay along the path uninterrupted?” The clanking cowbells and lush guitar plucks walk a fine line between conventionalism and fragmentation. The atmosphere reminds me of Kelela production, but the finite idiosyncrasies found within the background of the beat fit comfortably within Longstreth’s wandering spiritualism.
“Lose Your Love” finds each artist more assured with their current standing, as evidenced in the Gospel-tinged chipmunk sample and slinky hi-hats. “Just hold on, let yourself be found” is essentially Longstreth’s “lightbulb” moment when it comes to love. Pursue what you admire in life, and never lose grasp of what made certain encounters so special in the first place. Even if Longstreth always appears to be untangling life’s greatest vulnerabilities, there’s never enough room for elated confidence.
His newfound certainty reaches an apex on “Self Design.” The drums are resoundingly vigorous and Douglass’ vocals are inherently more dynamic than ever before. “I finally feel I can see” is layered as to mimic an exclamation point; a brief moment of conclusiveness before each songwriter asks “what’s enough?” Here lies the genius of Longstreth’s songwriting. He offers listeners succinct clarity for a few seconds, and then re-enters the ring of examination with questions like, “what’s your love but safe design?” (He loves to interchange words too). He’s a classic hypochondriac when facing unpredictability. But hey, aren’t we all in a way scared about what may lie ahead?
Longstreth and Douglas end Flight Tower with surprising catharsis underneath the weight of life’s true meaning (if there is one). The intimacy found within the figurative language on “Empty Vessel” aptly gets the message across, even if I do find the dance beat and odd vocal touchups to be a bit garish. Longstreth’s production has always felt unorthodox, but the track oftentimes can’t decide between emotional ballad or club-induced dancehall. The words “We are just another empty vessel filled with warmth” still sounds voluminous in any context.
Most Dirty Projectors projects function as immeasurable organisms strung together by ubiquitous examination and pursuit of self-actualization. Longstreth analyzes human connection for the very purpose of investigating his own emotional standing in this “empty vessel” we call our world. He subtly confirms this sentiment in Goodman’s book-‘I believed in that model that you should absorb the rules before you decide whether you want to break them or not.” You can feel this quote in his music. Much like pre-gentrification New York City, there’s no glass walls in Longstreth’s physiology, just boundary-less consumption and experimentation; as well as an infinite need to explore personal affirmation.