The new self-titled Dirty Projectors album is about as thorough a breakup album as you’ll encounter. Every song, all nine of them, deals with project mastermind David Longstreth‘s breakup with ex-bandmate Amber Coffman, and Longstreth tackles it from every angle; anger, grief, sadness, nostalgia, acceptance, bitterness, self-loathing, questioning and re-imagining. But as essentially a Longstreth solo effort (both Coffman and vocalist Angel Deradoorian have departed since 2012’s solid Swing Lo Magellan), the album is neither pretty nor catchy, and is thus ultimately a disappointment, despite its plethora displays of technical prowess.
Longstreth’s music is unmistakable. He takes the ‘voice as an instrument’ concept to the next level by employing plenty of vocal effects and offbeat harmonies and rhythms through multiple voices coming in from all sides. His melodies often sound like the musical equivalent of a Jackson Pollock painting – notes tumble off in scattershot, seemingly random arrangements that somehow make sense in the big picture. This technique was made not only bearable but enjoyable and thoroughly unique when Coffman and Deradoorian were manning a hefty percentage of the vocal duties, typically trading off with Longstreth and one another, but on Dirty Projectors, Longstreth’s chameleonic voice is interwoven with his own falsettos and baritones, and the results demonstrate how pivotal the ex-vocalists were to the entire operation.
Simply put, these songs are more unsettling and off-kilter than they are enjoyable. “Keep Your Name” kicks the album off in appropriate fashion, sending copies of Longstreth’s helium/chipmunk harmonies soaring while his own auto-tuned vocal splits them down the center. “Work Together” is another prime offender, with a chorus consisting of chanting the titular phrase while vocals meant to sound like clarinets and oboes sail about on either side of a minimalist, tribal drum beat. Throughout these tracks, the production is incredibly detailed and shows a high degree of deftness for arrangement and mixing effects, and the album is impressive in stereo with proper studio monitors or headphones. But where before Dirty Projectors songs were both incredibly complex and catchy, they are now (aside from a catchy tropical little beat and guest feature from D∆WN on “Cool Your Heart”) strictly the former.
There really are two components to this record, though – the aforementioned sonics, and the lyrical content. A concept album this tight is bound to do a lot of things right, and Dirty Projectors is no different. The cover art is a bleak reference to the band’s breakout 2009 album Bitte Orca and the title is aptly fitting for the largely self-referential material on the album. Since Coffman and Longstreth were both a couple and members of the same band, their relationship as well as the group’s trajectory are thoroughly intertwined on the record. Never is this more true than on the standout “Up in Hudson”, an eight-minute epic ballad that doesn’t abandon the album’s sound but still manages to be pretty and melodic. Through a series of verses, Longsreth walks chronologically through the relationship in plainspoken detail, unique to a lyricist that typically paints in obtuse analogies. “The first time ever I saw your face / laid my eyes on you / Was the Bowery Ballroom stage / you were shredding Marshall tubes” he starts, adding that he wrote her “Stillness is the Move” (from Bitte Orca) and that they “Saw the world side by side, from the road and the sage”. The song is sad (“love will burnout, love will just fade away”) and has a handful of painfully corny lyrics, but it’s still the best track here by a lot and one of the best in the band’s catalog.
Another conceptual high point is the finger-picking melody of “Two Doves” (another of Bitte Orca‘s best tracks) over crackling fuzz on “Ascent Through Clouds”, which succeeds in representing the death of the former version of the band. “Keep Your Name” hits on a similar idea, indicating that Longsreth kept the band’s name post-breakup despite pressure to switch or go by his own name. And I do tip my hat to the subtle self-reference on the closing track, where Dave sings “The projection is fading away”.
But there are lyrical face-palms throughout as well. Like on “Work Together” where Longstreth is naive enough to suggest that he thinks “Love should be enough to get it easily done”. On “Little Bubble” (the album’s most insufferable track), while reminiscing about the relationship, he asks “What did you dream of? Can you still remember? Was it in the key of love?” There is bitterness and resentment throughout, like when Longstreth suggests that Coffman would “Sell out the waterfront for condos and malls”, but on the closer he still manages to state that he’s “Proud and glad you were in my life”. Some of the sentiments are so direct and specific that they do manage to be emotionally compelling. Some of them are head scratchers (“I don’t think I ever loved you / That was some stupid shit” – really? You wrote this whole album and dropped the word love about 80 times). Some of them are corny as hell (“I fly fluid and remade / Ascending through the clouds and joining the constellation”). Nearly all of them are about his breakup with Amber Coffman. It’s a bit much.
Ultimately, although Dirty Projectors never once takes its foot off of the ‘breakup album’ gas, it really only fails because the songs aren’t fun or catchy or melodic. Dave’s solo vocal theatrics grow tiresome, and no production trickery can make up for it. “Up in Hudson” is a good track. “Cool Your Heart” is fun and not a bad indie pop song. The rest of it is forgettable.