Dirty Projectors take a drastically different turn with rhythmic, beat-driven new album
“Hold up,” begins David Longstreth on the song “Death Spiral.” As the track charged into full swing, those words pretty accurately described my reaction to this album. “Dirty Projectors” is the seventh studio album by the band of the same name. Of course, calling Dirty Projectors a band nowadays is not nearly as accurate as calling it “David Longstreth and others.” Dirty Projectors reached their most mainstream success with “Stillness is the Move,” a leading single from their 2010 album “Bitte Orca,” back when they could still be considered a true band. At that point there was still a rather solid group. Longstreth would later refer to the people that toured their next album, “Swing Lo Magellan,” as his family: his definitive version of Dirty Projectors.
Longstreth had the the deepest connection to one specific member of this family: Amber Coffman, a guitarist/backup-singer for Dirty Projectors, for whom “Stillness is the Move” was written. The band never quite reached stardom, so the specifics of their relationship was kept rather well hidden, especially their separation. No one really knows when it happened — a rather nice deviation from the norm when it comes to artists’ privacy — but it’s clear that “Dirty Projectors” is a nearly-solo breakup album.
In late 2016, Dirty Projectors released “Keep Your Name,” the first single and first track of the album. It featured Dirty Projectors in a way that had never before been heard. The height of their popularity had come from their intricately composed guitarwork and vocal harmonies. Their nearly arrhythmic style had helped to create an entirely unique sound that was all their own, a sound that listeners either hated or loved. The reaction to “Keep Your Name” was positive for the most part, but divisive at its core. There was no guitar, no vocal harmonies — just Longstreth and a piano. Or so it seemed.
It’s a rather somber and depressing track; this is in no way assisted by the fact that Longstreth’s vocals are pitched extremely down. This seemed a shame at first, given that he is a ridiculously talented male vocalist (someone I’d put at the top of the indie scene in that regard), but the reasoning behind this choice was soon evident. An overwhelming sense of melancholy could be derived from the track, and as it went on, seeming to consist only of depressive vocals and piano chords, a beat kicked in — an electronic beat, something you’d hear in a hip hop song. It started off simple, just a few toms here and there. Soon, a shaker was added, and by the time we got to the refrain it had completely fallen through as a banger-of-a-beat with impressive upward sweeps from a self-conceived sample. “Keep Your Name” was suddenly an R&B song. It was rather unexpected and, as stated earlier, rather divisive.
That’s what this album is, put simply. It’s an electronic R&B album; it’s beat-driven, conservatively complemented with physical instrumentation. It’s also fairly easy to determine what the album is about, given that the first line of the first song is “I don’t know why you abandoned me.” Each song seems to be Longstreth making a reflection on his relationship with Amber Coffman. Unfortunately, the lyrics are the weakest aspect of this record. Longstreth is known for rather poetic vocals on past efforts: nothing pretentiously undecipherable, but also not entirely blunt. “Dirty Projectors” is filled with lines that leave no room for digging. “I don’t think I ever loved you,” “that was some stupid shit,” “our love is in a death spiral,” “all I have is my love of love,” and “cool your heart,” just to list a few. David Longstreth makes no effort to mask what this album could possibly be. It’s clearly a breakup album, and he’s clearly under constant emotional duress as a result of said breakup. The lyrical bluntness, however, keeps the album from harboring the punch it’s entirely capable of. That all being said, the criticisms being made, this is a damn good record.
“Keep Your Name,” while a polarizing song, is one of the best on the album. It lost its punch for me when I first listened to the album, due to me having played the single on repeat for so many months, but its gooey R&B goodness is one of the highest — and thankfully one of the first — moments on the record. “Death Spiral” has a beat that could kill, with Longstreth rapping in his own deliberate and contained style. The bridge of the track feels like it could have been pulled straight from a Kanye West song. “Up in Hudson,” clocking in at seven-and-a-half minutes, is probably the best track on the record. Jam-packed with strings and brass, it balances the physical with the electronic nearly perfectly and has probably the least-cheesy lyrics of the entire album. The entire song works as a narrative to how Longstreth and Coffman met, fell in love and even how Longstreth wrote “Stillness is the Move” for her. “Little Bubble” serves as the token slow track, oozing with drippy and bubbly effects and a smooth beat that one may find oneself involuntarily lulling their head to. “Ascent Through Clouds” is probably the most unique track on the record. It starts with wistful and, for lack of a better description, cloudy vocals from Longstreth, and as it seems the song is fading into a close, a glitched-out beat kicks in like some sort of mutated IDM song. It builds up and up, threatening to break some unseen barrier between music and noise before it falls silent and Longstreth’s soft vocals seep back into the listener’s ears. The final track, “I See You,” is perhaps the most unfitting, but is also definitely a grower. A smooth drum beat and church-like hammond organ lead us into the track, the latter being the overwhelming leading-feature of the track. Eventually, as the track drags on, the dissonant organ starts to sound better and better, and Longstreth’s vocals plastered on top of it become cozy and relaxing. Beyond the musical aspect, however, this song reigns as the ever-important closer to the story.
This was a breakup album. As Longstreth repeats in “I See You:” “The projection is fading away,” perhaps alluding to Dirty Projectors itself. None of the “Swing Lo Magellan” family are present for this record, but they are all mentioned in the thank-yous of the liner notes, with Amber Coffman preceding all the other names. The entire track is accepting, forgiving and heartfelt. It’s an uplifting song. “The projection is fading away, and in its place, I see you.” Longstreth finally moves on with this track, finally finishing the poignant if not rather preachy message the album set out to broadcast. It’s honestly a perfect ending to the album and contrasts deliciously with the first track, “Keep Your Name.” In this meditative finale, Longstreth makes an ever-applicable observation, a realization that lifts weights off shoulders and sets gazes to the future: “I believe the love we made is the art.”