At least on first pass, it’s kind of a low blow, self-titling this record. In theory, Dirty Projectors was never a band, not really. They were a ‘project,’ an ever-changing group of musicians to fit Dave Longstreth’s vision. But that’s just not how it worked out. Sometime between 2007 to 2012 – during the releases of Rise Above, Bitte Orca, and Swing Lo Magellan – the group turned into an Indie Rock Band, albeit one didn’t sound quite like anyone else at the time. Longstreth’s yelp was flanked by the comparatively-soft voices of Angel Deradoorian and Amber Coffman, offering an essential counterpoint. They wrote angular, playful, and uncompromisingly complex songs that always kept a foot planted in pop. They were one of the most interesting bands out during that six-year span, and they were critical darlings.
In 2013, though, Coffman and Longstreth parted ways. They were bandmates, and that alone would be enough to alter the sound of a new project. But they were lovers, too. Dirty Projectors, released five years after Swing Lo Magellan, often feels like a conscious rejection – or, rather, a bastardization – of the things that made those three records so captivating. It’s also a musical reflection upon those years spent with Amber – this is a break-up album, plain and simple. Longstreth has called the first track, “Keep Your Name,” a “divorce song,” and there’s a bit in its video that drives that point home: during the chorus, he takes a guitar and smashes it into pieces on the floor. This is a typically “rock” move, but, critically, the project has never been rooted in that aggression, that testosterone – no, this instead reads as a rejection of his past, of the rock roots entirely, of that Dirty Projectors.
But he can’t let go quite yet – he’s got a lot to process. Maybe that’s why Coffman finds her way onto “Keep Your Name” – in a sample from “Impregnable Question,” a heartfelt and relatively-straightforward love song from their 2012 release. As he’s smashing that guitar, she’s transformed into a computerized wail, an artifact: “we don’t see eye to eye.” Suddenly, those words are rendered damning or prophetic or level-headed honesty, not the loving, ecstatic glide they were moments before. Features of previous records ¬¬find their way here, but they’re all treated the way “Impregnable Question” is on the first track: exuberantly knotty string sections are made chaotic and suffocating (“Work Together”), previous chord changes are covered in pitch-shifted vocals (“Ascent Through Clouds,” working with “Two Doves”). Duets between people are now a man and his computer. Dirty Projectors is the sound of Longstreth running his past decade through a digital trash compactor.
And the result is messy, to say the least. These songs move, as Dirty Projectors songs always have, in ways unexpected and bizarre, and they work out about half of the time. That stellar sample in “Keep Your Name” is later followed up by a half-successful pseudo-rapped bridge that namedrops Naomi Klein’s No Logo, reiterating his apparent disgust with Coffman (“What I want from art is truth / What you want is fame”). But it’s also given some bitter, harsh, and revealing parts, too: “I wasn’t there for you / I didn’t pay attention / I didn’t take you seriously / And I didn’t listen.” “Work Together” is distressingly self-aware, both in lyric (“Complex plans and high ideals / But he treats people poorly / Is a ceaseless ambitiousness proxy for a void he’s ignoring?”) and in beat, with a grotesque synth that seems self-consciously weird, forgetting to add any musical value to the song other than chaos. Similarly troubled is “I See You,” with its organ and aimless guitar solo seeming strangely heavy-handed for a record whose smallest details feel meticulously planned-out. But, at the same time, the song offers a handful of wonderful lines and functions as an excellent piece of closure.
Sometimes, this messiness is the central appeal. “Ascent Through Clouds” is a bipartite song in all but name – it’s a gorgeous ballad, with clouds of strings flying behind an Auto-Tuned vocal line, until the track simply shuts down and completely transforms. It breaks in two and shatters into a thousand pieces, and it’s static and wildly-jumping synth lines on the verge of breaking and a collage of words coming from each channel and it’s overwhelming and it makes no sense and that’s probably the point. These instrumentals are all confused and overwhelming and deeply, deliberately imperfect; many of them feel like Longstreth ripped pop songs in half and incorrectly tied them back together. Despite all of the distortions this music has, these songs find ways to be incredibly catchy: to pick one example of many, the ending to “Death Spiral,” with its Justin Timberlake-esque falsetto and growling synth-bass, brings his long-loved practice of “hocketing” – essentially, tossing the melody around an ensemble – to a one-man band and produces infectious results.
“Death Spiral” is early in the album, and that outro is grim: “Our love is in a death spiral,” chopped up and reiterated over and over again. Critically, though, the record doesn’t stay as bitter and angry as its first two tracks would suggest: eventually, Longstreth grows to appreciate the relationship he had with Coffman. He’s described the release as a “kaleidoscope,” and maintains that it isn’t strictly autobiographical, but it’s hard not to draw a line here. Halfway in, he’s reminiscing on the happiness he found with her, on the stunning “Little Bubble” (“Morning / Rays of light like champagne / Filter through and fill our room / We wake with no alarm”). Their breakup gets reframed as mutually-assured-destruction on “Winner Take Nothing,” and the final track feels as caring as he can be here: “What we gave, we will always retain / I remember and I will remain / Proud and glad you were in my life.”
Perhaps the most compelling part of this narrative, though, is how Longstreth plays with it in the music. There’s the bitterness of “Keep Your Heart,” with its sample rendering any petty insults redundant. There’s also the fear and willful ignorance of “Death Spiral,” which is about disregarding red flags (see: “Impregnable Question”) and says so both with its chorus and that frantic, choppy beat that’s falling apart around him. There’s “Up in Hudson,” which enthusiastically tells his side of the story, from meeting Coffman to writing “Stillness Is the Move” with her to touring together, all with a counterargument-as-chorus: “And love will burn out / And love will just fade away / And love’s gonna rot / And love will just dissipate.” But it’s covered up with these immense horn slabs that are gradually moved away, allowing the lines to hit harder and harder as the track develops. These fears, Longstreth seems to be saying, were always there. It wasn’t until years later that they came to fruition.
This is all to say: while Dirty Projectors is a significant departure from the sounds that made the project famous, it’s ultimately not too far removed from Bitte Orca or Swing Lo Magellan. Like those records, it’s incredibly musically sophisticated (for better and worse), it’s often obtuse and oblique, and it’s just overwhelming. But it’s all the better for it, because those traits are retooled to tell a deceptively complicated narrative, one of heartbreak and fond memories and love. Is it deeply flawed and messy and conflicted and overly complicated and confusing and exhausting? Sure. But what human experience isn’t?
FCC: 1, 3
Recommended if you like: Dirty Projectors, James Blake, Bon Iver
Favorite Tracks: 1, 2, 3, 5