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After the Indie Rock Bubble

Dirty Projectors were the most discussed cool-kid band of 2009. On their new album, Dave Longstreth is trying to make sense of what happened next.

(VEVO/Ringer illustration)
(VEVO/Ringer illustration)

Gather ’round, children, and hear the tale of the song that both perfected and destroyed the idea of “indie rock” as a marketing construct and cultural powerhouse. It’s called “Stillness Is the Move.” If you know it, good luck singing along.

What a beautiful, strange, frustrating, confounding piece of music. In 2009, eccentric art pop evil genius Dave Longstreth transformed his long-running, constantly mutating band Dirty Projectors into the world’s most cerebral girl group, loading up on punishing shrieks and ecstatic coos, migraine-inducing noise and radiant West African pop. Jagged riffs, volcanic time-signature contortions, discordant polyphonic squalls. At first contact, it sounded like extremely smart people screaming at you; my good friend said the only thing he could hear was, “YALE! YALE! YALE! YALE! YALE!” (Longstreth is a graduate, and a deep thinker, and a formidable yelper.)

“Stillness Is the Move” was as smooth, sweet, and straightforward as this band ever got. It never really got better, in fact. With sharp but bubbly singer-guitarist Amber Coffman singing lead — a welcome respite from Longstreth’s robo-Gumby vocal gyrations — the song inspired a ton of Mariah Carey comparisons, which probably drove die-hard Mariah Carey fans nuts. (“I don’t know them,” you could hear her insisting.) You could at least attempt to belt out the chorus — “Af-ter / All that / We’ve been / Through!” — without shredding your vocal chords or tearing your ACL. It was a karaoke classic for a scene too cool for karaoke. It also landed Dirty Projectors on the cover of New York magazine under the headline “Brooklyn’s Sonic Boom,” hailing a new generation of at-least-Williamsburg-adjacent bands redefining “indie rock,” “pop,” and “success,” from MGMT to TV on the Radio to Grizzly Bear, with Longstreth as the volatile focal point. “Admirers went so far as to compare him to Prince and David Byrne,” New York wrote, “classic outliers with the singular power to draw the mainstream toward them.”

The Prince comparison aside, such a coronation wasn’t quite as insane as it sounded; the mainstream did inch tentatively closer, though in retrospect, everyone may have misunderstood the mainstream’s intentions. I know this because, to quote another beloved mercurial-genius bandleader of that particular time and place, I was there. I was there at a SoHo bookstore, killing time between acts by reading the last lines out of various Tom Clancy novels, waiting for Dirty Projectors to jump onstage with Björk and sing a bunch of pretty and inscrutable songs about whales. I was there when the most vexing political issue of the day was whether Vampire Weekend were craven cultural appropriators. I was there when Solange Knowles, who did her own version of “Stillness Is the Move,” took her scene boosterism even further and dragged her sister and her sister’s husband out to see Grizzly Bear play a free summer show on the Williamsburg Waterfront. (Full disclosure: I was not there for that one in person, but rest assured I read several blogs about it.)

It was a nice little moment, even if you suspected that the nostalgia the moment would one day inspire, a decade or so hence, might be pretty goddamn irritating. Some people don’t miss it; Longstreth misses parts of it, at least, in his own recondite way. His band’s new record, simply titled Dirty Projectors, is out this week, a de facto solo album and breakup album both, challenging and confrontational. It is, at first contact, deeply uncomfortable, but you might warm to it, if you ever found his work at all warm to begin with. As he sings, in the record’s smoothest, sweetest, and most straightforward moment, “We had our own little bubble / For a while.”

The groans were audible from space. Here is a verbatim Dave Longstreth quote: “is it me or is the condition of indie rock in the 24½th century both bad and boujee?” Thus began his recent loopy Instagram chat with Robin Pecknold, frontman for likewise-rhapsodised Eagle Scout beardos Fleet Foxes. They fear that “indie rock,” as a cultural powerhouse if not a marketing construct, is dead, you see. They are far from the first to allege this. But Pecknold is at least more specific in dating the genre’s peak to the dizzying 2009 run when Dirty Projectors’ Bitte Orca, Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, and Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest gave those bands their biggest hits (including “Stillness”) and best sales — “the last time,” he says, “there was a fertile strain of ‘indie rock’ that also felt progressive w/o devolving into Yes-ish largesse.”

Bitte Orca, for more good than ill, is proudly awash in Yes-ish largesse, overloaded with riffs and ideas and abrupt detours and way-too-muchness: “Yeah I wanna / Remake the horizon,” goes one chorus, delivered in as jerky and sing-along-unfriendly a manner as possible. Dirty Projectors is considerably less generous overall. The first single from this record, “Keep Your Name,” is rough. “I don’t know why you abandoned me,” Longstreth wails by way of introduction, his dour voice digitally stretched like a ribbon of jet-black taffy. “You were my soul and my partner.” It only gets gnarlier.

This is the first Dirty Projectors album in a decade to not feature Coffman, who is also now Longstreth’s ex-girlfriend, and “Keep Your Name” laments the death of love and art in equal, bitter measure. The mood is ethereal but brittle, with a funereal piano and jittery drum machine. A ghostly sample of “Impregnable Question,” one of the simpler and sweeter moments on the band’s 2012 album Swing Lo Magellan, wends its way through the chorus — a pleasant memory repurposed now as an eerie eulogy. The new song’s bridge is a bonkers, manic, pitch-shifted convulsion; Longstreth’s voice is distended into a Kendrick Lamar chirp as he gets all pious and sassy:

The song’s climactic line is, in this corner of creative enterprise, the meanest thing one musician can say about another: “What I want from art is truth / What you want is fame.” Track 2 is called “Death Spiral.”

Recoiling in horror is part of the process with Dirty Projectors, which vacillates between self-accusation and regular old crabby Dylanesque accusation. “Work Together” kicks off by somehow making this sentiment sound melodious: “Complex plans and high ideals / But he treats people poorly / Is his ceaseless ambitiousness proxy for a void he’s ignoring?” Whereas “Up in Hudson,” the twistiest and most conventionally melodious thing on the record, goes all the way back to the doomed couple’s artistic and romantic beginnings: the meet-cute at the Bowery Ballroom, the invitation to join the band, the first kiss, etc. “Maybe I could be with you,” he sings, wistfully. “Do the things that lovers do / Slightly domesticate the truth / And write you ‘Stillness Is the Move.’”

Yelped chorus: “And love will burn out / And love will just fade away.” He sounds almost ecstatic singing it. His mood is improving.

The slightly cheerier and less claustrophobic vibe of “Up in Hudson” is the first indication that Dirty Projectors is even survivable, emotionally or otherwise. There are angry mood swings still to come, and much sonic density to hack through, but the placid and clear-eyed and relatively unfussy moments might come to justify the effort. We at least end on a hopeful note with “I See You,” an organ-driven shuffle that finds Longstreth extolling the merits of “Forgiveness, reconciliation / Gratitude, you know me, and / I know you.” His dramatic conclusion: “Yeah, I believe that the love we made is the art.” (It is notable that Coffman is readying her own solo album — the gentle first single is pointedly called “All to Myself” — and Longstreth, apparently, produced it.)

It’s ideal, in wrestling with this confounding, frustrating, strange, and, given enough time, ultimately beautiful record, to have a personal connection of your own: to have survived those halcyon days of heavily corporatized Williamsburg indie rock pool parties, today’s hot new band morphing easily into tomorrow’s Saturday Night Live–anointed crossover success. (Scan Dirty Projectors’ credits and you’ll stumble across avant-garde vocalist and electronic tinkerer Tyondai Braxton, whose old band Battles expanded quite a few horizons themselves, back in the day.) It’s not that the Brooklyn Sonic Boom bubble ever burst, exactly, so much as its best ideas and weirdest notions turned out to be best expressed by the very pop stars these bands were supposed to maybe supplant.

Longstreth’s recent claim to fame is that he wrote the bridge to Kanye West’s “FourFiveSeconds,” making him the latest in a long line of underground deities (Bon Iver, Grimes, Chairlift) funneling ideas to the biggest possible hitmakers (Kanye, Rihanna, Beyoncé). For this is how the great rockism vs. popism debate finally ended: It used to be that very serious guitar-wielding men like Longstreth were hailed as Real Musicians, as distinct from all those vapid, talentless, image-obsessed pre-fab pop stars, but in 2016 those prefab pop stars made most of the weirdest, coolest, and, yes, realest music, often with the help of those very same serious guitar-wielding men (and women!). Here’s Rihanna remixing Tame Impala; here’s Beyoncé bringing a convoluted Vampire Weekend / Yeah Yeah Yeahs in-joke to life. Everybody wins, or at least, everybody gets paid.

“Stillness Is the Move” was an important milestone on the road to pop and indie rock working together, but as always, the old-guard pop stars ending up taking more than they gave. The love you make might be art, but your art is still commerce; the mainstream drew close enough to absorb much of this scene’s spirit, and then started floating away again, rejuvenated and as untouchable as ever. (Solange still enjoys dual citizenship; she cowrote Dirty Projectors’ airy “Cool Your Heart,” costarring sci-fi R&B heroine Dawn Richard.) This record won’t make Longstreth any more famous, but it’ll keep him just famous enough to qualify him to help super-famous people get even more famous. It’s not the worst legacy. There is much baggage to unpack with this guy, this band, this moody-as-hell album. Just don’t spend too much time pontificating on Instagram about it.