There is something laudable in the emotional truth revealed here.
After a five-year interim between Dirty Projectors’ last full length, Swing Lo Magellan, and their new self-titled record, lead single, “Keep Your Name” reintroduces David Longstreth’s long-running project as a new solo venture via a slow, saddened electro ballad with 808 percussion, pitched-down vocals and a rap on its bridge. With a title that implies divorce, the song both lyrically and stylistically represented a fissure with the Dirty Projectors’ past, even if Longstreth is still obsessing over it in the present. One telling element is how “Keep Your Name” samples Dirty Projectors’ own “Impregnable Question” during its chorus, with a pitched-up vocal squealing, “We don’t see eye to eye.” On the original version, these lyrics finish “But I love you and you’re always on my mind.” Here, on both the song and album as a whole, there is little sense of this resolution.
Dirty Projectors is Longstreth’s document of his breakup with Amber Coffman, a singer and guitarist who was a full-member of DP since their 2007 Black Flag cover album Rise Above. Coffman’s contribution to the Dirty Projectors, particularly her writing and lead vocals on breakthrough 2009 single “Stillness Is the Move,” solidified the band’s identity to many listeners. Technically accomplished and melodically complex, Dirty Projectors took an impassioned, if intellectual approach to West African pop music, R&B, 20th century classical music and classic rock, creating a conflagration of style that questioned basic norms of what a 21st century rock band should sound like. (Note: If this sounds familiar, Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig is a former roommate and friend of Longstreth’s, as well as an early touring member of DP.) Aside from their stylistic innovation, Dirty Projectors also privileged female musicians, like Coffman and Angel Deradoorian, whose voices not only featured in complex harmonies, but also took the lead vocal duty and helped write many of their greatest songs, imbuing them with depth that may not have existed without their contribution.
Longstreth recounts his courtship with Coffman on the album’s third single, “Up in Hudson,” a seven-and-a-half minute epic that is beautiful, pained and ugly. Technically, the song is incredible and illustrates that no one makes music quite like Longstreth. The Brazilian-inspired percussion that drives the song and its outro, along with the fantastic low-end horns that punctuate the chorus, prove as much. Moreover, Longstreth’s singing, on this track and throughout the album, is much more expressive than it has been on previous recordings. But the sumptuous beauty of the music rubs against the agonized lyrics, simultaneously looking at the past with rose-colored glasses and also with clear anger. This latter feeling pops up on the album’s Bernard Herrmann-sampling second track, “Death Spiral”, which transcends its pedestrian titular metaphor by making what’s likely the best approximation of Timbaland’s production aesthetic in the last five years. Longstreth spikes the girth of the song with fat, undulating synths that wouldn’t sound out of place on a record by his collaborator Kanye West. The flaws Longstreth overcomes on “Death Spiral” unfortunately overwhelm “Work Together,” a failed Prince pastiche that runs P-Funk-fart-synths into a drum ’n’ bass tempo and never coheres into an effective whole. “Winner Take Nothing,” is a superior mélange of tempo changes, melody and style, but it’s handicapped by its snippy lyrics that imply that the subject (likely Coffman) is a sellout while Longstreth is a man of the people. It’s an unfortunate move, but, at the same time, there is something laudable in the emotional truth revealed here.
Aside from these few hiccups, which illustrate the importance of Longstreth’s emotional processing to his creative process, the record is superlative. The hymn-like “Little Bubble” shows Longstreth’s ability with distinctly American sounding melodies in its gorgeous piano refrain. “Cool Your Heart” channels the freneticism of DP’s 2009 classic Bitte Orca and notably features Dawn Richard, who provides the only vocals on the album not sung by Longstreth himself. The song is jittery, with space between every single instrumental element—its whirring, unsettled center signaling the paradoxical exhilaration one feels as they work through heartbreak. It’s the releasing of a weight and an opening of doors. Elsewhere, Longstreth continues this eclecticism with “Ascent Through Clouds,” which starts with a guitar line that quotes DP’s own “Two Doves”, then moves into strangely affected choral vocals gilded by lurching strings, before ending with a glitchy techno outro.
Still, the album’s most powerful moment is its final song, “I See You.” The album opens with church bells—either signifying a death or a wedding—and its final song is driven by a churchy organ and Longstreth’s soulful vocals. Its lyric revolves around Longstreth’s realization of “The love that we made is the art,” going on to say, “The projection has faded away/ I see you”. Even with its lyrics imploring that Longstreth will “let go of the tether if you let go of my heart,” “I See You” is the first real moment of generosity that he offers both to himself and, seemingly, to Coffman. As a final statement, it’s hardly a salve for the uneasy perspective that Longstreth put forth across Dirty Projectors, but the album’s narrative is more implied than fully realized. In its inherently juxtapositional and flawed delivery, the album approximates heartbreak, grief, reflection and remorse more suitably than most other records on the subject in recent memory. The transcendent “I See You” caps off all these emotions with a gorgeous expression of clarity, pointing a way forward through the miasma that is life.