It’s been said that so much poetry is sad because it’s far easier to say something new about suffering than it is to say something new about happiness. This proposition sheds some light on the difference between Lamp Lit Prose, Dirty Projectors’ newest album, and the self-titled album that the Brooklyn rock band released last year. Dirty Projectors was recorded after a breakup and sounds like a plunge into the dark, but fascinating depths of the ocean. Lamp Lit Prose is more like a walk on a flat, touristy beach—a walk that’s pleasant, but doesn’t involve many new insights or discoveries.
To be fair, the shortcomings of Lamp Lit Prose are not due to a lack of talent. Dirty Projectors have been around for years, and they’re clearly intelligent and willing to think outside the box. Multiple tracks blend horns and strings with gorgeous harmonies and EDM-influenced breakdowns. “Break-Thru” includes some intriguing allusions, comparing a woman to the Archimedes Palimpsest and a Fellini film. Yet too many of the songs, though clearly bursting with enthusiasm, are full of unfulfilled promise.
A good illustration of this unfulfilled promise is “Zombie Conqueror” (ft. Empress Of). The ballad opens with glorious, ‘60s-esque guitar-strumming, the kind that summons images of sunbeams streaming through windows. Then David Longstreth begins to sing, setting the scene for a cinematic battle with lines like “My eyes are bright, my khakis tattered” and “The townspeople are anxious and alert.” Everything is perfect until the chorus, when he repeats the phrase “Zombie conqueror/We see into the midnight in front of us” so often and so lightheartedly that all meaning and gravitas start to fade. There’s nothing wrong with a good zombie song; Jamie T pulled it off fantastically, and Gorillaz has flirted with the premise several times. Here, though, Longstreet and Empress Of don’t fully deliver. Their vocals are beautiful, but unfortunately, vocals can’t sell a song alone, especially one that’s so high-concept.
Elsewhere, the lyrics continue to fall short. In “I Feel Energy,” the title is repeated so many times that you might feel drained of energy by the time the five minutes are over, despite the efforts of the chipper cowbells and horns. “Blue Bird” is overly saccharine with the refrain “You and me/Me and you/Something sweet/Something new,” even though the recorders on the track are fun. Then there’s “I Found It In U,” which lyrically resembles an absurd Owl City outtake. Lines like “And when we met there were alien hosannas” are mixed with lines like “I (I) have (have) such a (such a) rad (rad) time with you,” resulting in something that feels like a sci-fi film without complete worldbuilding.
Thankfully, the final track, “(I Wanna) Feel It All,” brings back some of the lush darkness of Dirty Projectors’ past work. With instrumentation that blends both Baroque and jazz and lyrics about wanting life to hit you with all its intensity, it’s a sweet, subtle paean that could easily be suited for a quiet moment in a musical. When Longstreth sings about “Air on the street when the rain starts to fall,” you can almost sense the chill yourself. This is Dirty Projectors at their most magical: not contrived or affected or trying too hard; simply letting sincere emotion take the reins.
Lamp Lit Prose is not quite as glowing as its title suggests. Although it features lovely collaborations, intriguing instrumentation, and a great deal of good vibes, it’s far from the band’s most stellar work. Dirty Projectors have released some innovative tunes, but these don’t do the best job of showing off their potential.