Like most people in America, Dave Longstreth seemed to be having a miserable year in 2017. For the self-titled album from Dirty Projectors — the musical project he has helmed since 2002 — he painfully documented the dissolution of a relationship, spilling his heart out over nine tracks of self-reflection and brutal candor.
Composed almost entirely by himself, there appeared to be little indication that Longstreth would return to the buoyant, erudite avant-garde pop that helped Dirty Projectors stand above other indie rock auteurs of the 2000s. An inward drift looked likely, particularly since the breakup that Longstreth ostensibly documented in the album was between him and Amber Coffman, a former member of Dirty Projectors.
Yet last year, Longstreth followed up with Lamp Lit Prose, a warm, optimistic collection of idiosyncratic songs. Tracks like “Break-Thru” and “I Feel Energy” mirrored the zig-zagging, kinetic work that defined earlier Dirty Projectors albums such as Bitte Orca and Swing Lo Magellan. Longstreth said he actually recorded the two albums nearly simultaneously, envisioning the releases as competing bookends to explore the duality of human emotions.
“I kind of thought of the two albums as a larger conceptual whole,” says Longstreth, whose band plays at the Fillmore on Thursday along with Atlanta indie rockers Deerhunter for a show staged by Folk Yeah. “I was thinking about the heart and exploring the ultimate darkness and desolation of heartbreak and the peaks and highs of a positive loving relationship.”
Although much speculation has focused on Longstreth’s personal life as the basis for these albums, Lamp Lit Prose can be viewed as a more universal declaration of hope. Longstreth said it was important that he not capitulate to misery, despite the constant stream of bleak news developments.
“I know right now it’s really easy to e super nihilistic about finding meaning in any individual choice,” Longstreth says. “You know, if the U.S. military is consuming hundreds of thousands of oil drums every day, what difference does it make if I’m eating vegan or grabbing a burger? But I don’t agree that it does not matter, we have to regard ourselves as capable of affecting change, as individuals who can together add up to make a difference. On an album like Lamp Lit Prose, I think it’s important to enumerate things to be hopeful about and to articulate things that bring us joy and happiness and give us hope.”
Unlike the stark subject matter of the band’s 2017 self-titled album, Longstreth said the rosy premises of Lamp Lit Prose called for a much more communal effort. That led him to recruit a full band for the album, which included longtime collaborator and bass player Nat Baldwin and drummer Mike Daniel Johnson, who played with the band from 2012-13.
Perhaps inspired by that effort, Longstreth has immersed himself once again into creating collaborative art. Dirty Projectors debuted a number of new songs at Primavera Sound in Barcelona last month, and Longstreth said his current creative approach is to “build songs around the band.”
Whether that method will engender another set of ebullient, optimistic songs remains to be seen. Longstreth has a long history of yo-yoing between emotional and artistic extremes — bounding effortlessly between high-art concepts albums and simple elegies of love — so the next delivery from Dirty Projectors could be a claustrophobic, pensive offering. That’s the contrasting nature of the band and Longstreth himself, (and really every person on the planet). But after crawling through a tough 2017, he seems intent on ensuring the longevity of Dirty Projectors, in whatever form it takes—a reassuring feeling for fans who might have been worried that this endeavor was nearing its end.
“I always thought of Dirty Projectors as something that would grow with me,” Longstreth says. “As I changed, that would be reflected in whatever I was writing at the time. Right now, I’m having a lot of fun working with the band. I’m excited about the future. I’m hopeful.”
Dirty Projectors with Deerhunter, Thursday, July 18, at the Fillmore, 1805 Geary Blvd. $35; thefillmoresf.com.
The writer is both performative and confessional in 'You Never Had It: An Evening with Bukowski.'