In a recent interview, Dirty Projectors’ driving force David Longstreth lamented the fact that creative arts, like his, have been “deskilled by these really powerful ideologies of punk in music and Warhol in the visual arts.”
It’s not totally true, but you can see what he means – it’s why they sell Johnny Ramone, not John Cage T-shirts in Topshop.
Longstreth’s work, though, highlights the concept of the pop group as a skilled profession. Every element of Dirty Projectors’ performance tonight (and on record) reeks of skill and smartness. Not in a smug way, more like a cool maths professor explaining inverse quadratics.
Every harmony and brip-brap chord feels precision-planned. And, with Longstreth famous for insisting on 12-hour rehearsals you’d expect them to be.
Tonight’s show, the last of three in the UK on a short European tour, is packed with tracks from their sixth album Swing Lo Magellen. That fact might annoy fans of other bands, but Swing Lo is perhaps the band’s most accessible work, 12 short songs of dynamic, choral, trippy pop.
Set up in front of just a set of curtains which feature occasional projections of the band’s lyrics in an old Babylonian script, and frequently in silhouette, Longstreth and co – including secondary singer and his partner Amber Coffman - let their music lead the narrative of the evening.
Tracks like “Offspring Are Blank”, a song whose ambitions are small enough to tackle the reproduction of the entire human race, bleed with static claps and staccato drum clips, before its oversized chorus thunderclaps through the room.
The best moment comes in “Beautiful Mother” the one song that isn’t from Magellen or2009’s breakout Bitte Orca. It comes from Mount Wittenberg Orca, a 2010 collaboration with Bjork. It’s a brief pattern in which Coffman and Haley Dekle’s vocals playfight for a few seconds before climaxing in a wondrous, other-wordly harmony. It earns that rare thing, a mid-song ovation.
Some moments are a tad bewildering, Mike Johnson’s off-beat drums in “Dance For You” sound like they’re tapping to a different song at points. Hoffman and Dekle’s power-harmonies, meanwhile can seem like someone’s just released a choral pressure valve but, for the most part, each element is captivating. No more so than in the Solange Knowles-covered “Stillness Is the Move” in which Hoffman stalks the stage and ends by hitting an unlikely party-crashing Whitney-esque note. It’s not an unskilled way to finish the evening.