Dirty Projectors, given the recent divorce between frontman David Longstreth and former bandmate Amber Coffman, is limited by expectation. When art is bogged down by so much personal history, it is difficult for it to thematically escape its own context. Much has been made about how Longstreth’s divorce with Coffman influenced his songwriting on Dirty Projectors, but this undersells the album’s depth.
Lyrically, Dirty Projectors is an unapologetic auditory essay on heartbreak, but beneath this narrative lies a deeper separation: the album is underpinned by Longstreth’s separation from Dirty Projectors’s established genre. Whilst references to heartbreak litter the album from the opening sound of wedding bells to the haunting organ at the conclusion, Longstreth surprisingly uses his personal history to discuss more than the politics of love. Dirty Projectors has always been known as a project that does something unexpected with the obvious, whether it be lyrically or sonically, and this has extended to Longstreth’s version of a ‘break-up’ album. The essence of Dirty Projectors is still there, albeit under a much more sleek, modern aesthetic.
The decision to make Dirty Projectors – an album devoid of any contribution from the Dirty Projector’s previous bandmates – self-titled speaks volumes for Longstreth’s headspace. For a band that once felt like a carousel of musical talent, it’s now oddly sobering to see Longstreth so isolated. As a result, Dirty Projectors lacks the familiar folk-inspired warmness of Swing Lo Magellan and Bitte Orca, and instead welcomes a glitchy soundscape to accommodate Longstreth’s journey towards acceptance.
Album opener ‘Keep Your Name’ serves as a comprehensive primer for the album. The collage of shifting piano chords, the blending of electronic and natural drums, and the electronic production is counter-balanced effectively with Longstreth’s plain, monosyllabic lyrics. It’s through this contrast that he captures moments of reflection, mirroring the confusing process of recovery following divorce. “I wasn’t there for you, I didn’t pay attention, I didn’t take you seriously”, he confesses. For an album that opts for a glitchy production choices, there are still moments of quiet reflection. Break-up albums can often fall into bitterness, but Longstreth remains reflective throughout. The magic in Dirty Projectors is how Longstreth paradoxically uses loud palette to find moments of peaceful clarity.
Despite the maximalist production choices, there are still moments of conservatism on Dirty Projectors. On album highlight ‘Little Bubble’, Longstreth pushes for understatement, “We had our own little bubble, for a while”, he sings. The hook is at once highly personal but also universal; by stripping back lyrics to their core, Longstreth achieves a more intimate communication with the listener. The references to Longstreth’s separation have a duality of intimacy and universalism; the album never becomes overly-focused on Longstreth’s personal history. It’s a welcome shift in lyrical choice for a project that was once known for reliance on fantastical concepts and metaphor. By simplifying his language, Longstreth has reached for a more effective kind of songwriting. The emotional centerpiece of the song is liberally furnished with piano and strings which prop up Longstreth’s stretched vocals.
Even though the album flirts with almost every modern production technique in the book, there is still room for traditional instrumentation. The horns on ‘Up In Hudson’ and the piano progression on ‘Death Spiral’ showcase Longstreth’s mastering of effective contrast in songwriting. Dirty Projectors shows that an effective reconciliation between traditionalism and technology can be achieved to accurately reflect the 21st century journey towards romantic closure.
The alternative R&B influence on Dirty Projectors is the most notable change since Swing Lo Magellan. The influence lends itself well to the autobiographical ‘Up in Hudson’ by imbuing Longstreth’s confessions with a degree of intimacy. The song develops like a Sun Kil Moon deep-cut , but the strong R&B vocals embed it in poppier territory. Longstreth traces the history of his relationship with Coffman from the first time they kissed to their final tour, breaking with a chorus that bleakly concludes that “love will burn out, love will fade away”. That hook is at odds with the song’s message itself; it’s a self-aware lie, a shallow comfort. The mixture of traditional R&B tropes with modern textures leaves the album in a state of nostalgia that is not too dissimilar from the nostalgia of old romance. Dirty Projectors, through its influences, leaves us questioning how much of loss is merely nostalgia masked as heartbreak.
On Dirty Projectors Longstreth – like most people after a break-up – is as self-comforting as he is self-destructive. The fluctuations in lyrics and sound are symptomatic of his own inner contradictions. The change in artistic direction and the personal history surrounding Dirty Projectors masks the honesty that is embedded within it. Underneath Longstreth’s new obsessions, tastes, trendiness, etc. lays acceptance. When Longstreth sings that “We’re going our separate ways, but we’re still connected”, on ‘Up In Hudson’, it’s not clear whether he’s talking about Coffman, his band, or his art; all of his loves here are universal. Fundamentally, Dirty Projectors uses Longstreth’s romantic history not to accommodate bitterness, but to implore us to choose love.
Words by Ben Newman