(Dead Oceans; 2007)
By Christopher Alexander | 9 April 2007
So the short story is that Dave Longstreth, mastermind of Dirty Projectors, emerges on Rise Above as the answer to Pierre Menard. The titular character of Jorge Luis Borges’ story died before he could achieve his greatest dream: rewriting Don Quixote. Not merely copying the book, or stealing slash changing elements of it, Menard attempted to reproduce the novel as if it was his own, as if the exact same book could come from the hidden places his own work did. As told by his obituarist, it would’ve been Menard’s finest achievement. He quotes a passage of Cervantes’ original (“truth, whose mother is history”) and dismisses it as preposterous, then goes on to quote Menard’s passage, which is of course identical, as a “revelation.” The revelation is that the same sentiment could exist through four hundred years of Spanish-speaking history; of which, of course, the Quixote plays an integral part.
There’s a lot to unpack in Borges, but one of the key questions posed is the difficulty of creation in a world suffocated by masterpieces. Don Quixote is no longer recognized as a novel of longing, fighting, romance, and foolhardy stoicism; rather, it’s the subject of patriotic toasts, its status as icon reinforced in a centuries-long echo chamber. Temporal reaction to it is beside the point; advocating or dismissing it almost becomes a political act. It becomes subject only to veneration or blasphemy, and is therefore dead. Borges suggestion, it seems, is that one way to combat it—to destroy it and therefore revive it—is to rewrite the book completely, if only to throw it in the face of the patriotic set, and restore the power the work holds.
So I think Longstreth imagines that somewhere, Borges is smiling at his latest creation, a re-imagining of Black Flag’s canonical 1981 album Damaged. In all likelihood, though, he would probably only get as far as the 1:31 mark in opener “What I See,” where loud, dissonant guitar gives way to Kurt Weill-influenced woodwinds. Then he would wish he were deaf, rather than blind. Still, I think his idea is the same, and well intentioned: Damaged has become, in some circles, as copied and blown out as any Beatles or Elvis Presley song. It is impossible to hear it as the revolutionary flash it truly was with the echo of any number of thuggish bands’ ringing in your ears. Black Flag existed as a reaction to Southern Californian anomie, of a youth culture that took its turns from rock bands that were ten years old; any basement in any college town in America boasts the same poses found on this twenty-six year old album. So to revive it, Longstreth must first destroy it. Rise Above shares song titles and snatches of lyrics with its fore bearer, but nothing else.
I’m sure I’m on the wrong track, but I can’t help it: most of the album is so resolutely sunny and full of good humor. Exhibit A: they pull a neat musical gag with the vocal arrangement of “What I See.” Black Flag’s original was a masterpiece of blind, contradictory teenage range, told with all the subtlety of a Monster Truck Rally: “I want to live! I wish I was dead!” The Projectors make a repetition of “I want to live” into a constant rhythmic whirr, reliable as a fan blade, then two measures later, “I wish I was dead,” which has a more syncopated, oddball phrasing. The contradiction is both more apparent in the phraseology, but more subtle in keeping with the theme of the quasi-reggae beat behind them. For this song and others like it, Rise Above reads more like a commentary on Black Flag’s posthumous audience than revitalization. This is given more credence for the fact that the Dirty Projectors have tweaked a few of the right beaks for their impudence. For that measure, it’s a fair question to ask if the smoldering cul-de-sac of hardcore is upset because of their insufficient reverence to the punk rock shibboleth or if, one suspects, its existence is some sort of cosmic mirror. The joke being that Damaged has actually been rewritten countless times by some of their number.
Of course, that’s not really any worse than some of the albums in our archives that are rehashes of In the Aeroplane Under the Sea (1998) or Doolittle (1989). Which is why, finally, I’m taking a pass at grading Rise Above, even though at times it’s quite pleasant, musical and obviously accomplished, more so than any Dirty Projectors album I’ve yet heard. This could be the reviewer’s fault—unable to escape the penumbra of Damaged, even if I long to pop the air out of the zeppelin. Ultimately, I just can’t see this album in terms other than its conceit. In their attempt to give an album back its vitality, to render something that has been endlessly discussed and reified enjoyable again, they have made an album designed only to be discussed. It appeals only to the intellect, and to quote Borges again, “there is no exercise of the intellect which is not, in the final analysis, useless.”