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The Beauty in Construction

January 8, 2010

The more I hear Bitte Orca, the more I enjoy it, and yet I can’t bring myself to love it.

Dirty Projectors’ latest collection of songs established itself as a mid-year contender for Album of the Year last year (though it would never catch up to Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective in the eyes of most publications, including PopMatters). It’s an album that could be described as aggressively indie, what with song structures that prog bands could identify with, melodies that take the long way to singsongy, and at least three vocalists taking the lead microphone, with the other two often singing along in harmony. It’s a strange album — not completely inaccessible, but it’ll never befriend any fans of top 40 radio. It’s obscure enough that I had a rather adverse reaction to it on first listen.

Since that first listen, though, I’ve come to admire it for both its chutzpah (it knows what it is, and it never tries to be anything else) and its construction. It’s the type of thing that benefits from its listener knowing what’s coming; the jarring transitions make sense when you know they’re coming, and their association with one another eventually sounds as though it was crafted by a master composer, rather than an irritable kid in a rocking chair who bores easily.

Even as my appreciation for it grows, however, I never find myself absorbed by it; never able to pierce the glass pane that separates it from my consciousness, I take it in on a technical level while it stays in a plane completely separate from my emotions. Its nine songs are simply nine songs without a narrative or a flow uniting them, and its sound strives for little more than individuality.

While I was putting this criticism of the album together, it felt familiar, and it didn’t take long to figure out how — these are the same sorts of criticisms I see levied at a genre of games that I hold dear: space shooters. Shmups. I’ve lobbied in support of seeing space shooters as “art” before, and the belief that they are is one I continue to hold. Anyone, after all, can make a game in which a little blip on the screen has to shoot projectiles at a bunch of bad blips in order to win; to make such a game compelling takes an artist.

Why, then, can I love the experience of playing a space shooter while the experience of listening to Dirty Projectors falls short? The interactive experience. Being able to insert myself into the complex equations being played out in front of me is thrilling; to be able to master those equations in the ways obviously intended by the developers can be just this side of mind-blowing. I don’t get to insert myself into Bitte Orca‘s tapestry. I’m forced to admire it from afar.

Even so, this is enough to force me to take pause for a second and re-evaluate my own criticism of the album. Perhaps it doesn’t engage me on an emotional level, but who am I to say it won’t do so for others? Who would I be to try and lambaste an indie scene that’s chosen to embrace an expertly-constructed album just because I won’t be singing along to it in my car any time soon? I’d be a hypocrite, for I have personal experience in how the technical construction of a piece of art can be enough to inspire love for that art, even without, say, a cohesive narrative or a specific appeal to visceral reaction.

So Bitte Orca is on your list of the best albums of 2009? Bully for you. Perhaps one day I’ll find a way to love it enough to put it on mine.

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