Album Review: Dirty Projectors

They’re back, self-titled, and as beautifully bizarre as ever. Diving headfirst into hardship, founder David Longstreth begins Dirty Projectors with a solemn nod to ex-bandmate and ex-girlfriend Amber Coffman. “Keep Your Name” samples Coffman’s vocals off their 2012 track, “Impregnable Question,” repeating “We don’t see eye to eye.” To be clear, he opens the album by manipulating a sample of his ex’s declaration of love into a devastating howl. From the start we can tell that this album is saturated with pain. By pulling us into his internal tensions, he reestablishes the intimate connection that we’ve come to love and enjoy, and invites us on yet another eccentric journey into his mind.

If you’re unfamiliar with group’s previous work, their style can be described as a transient soundscape of playful melodies, unexpected pitch changes, and complex, rhythmical instrumentation. On this new album, Longstreth casts their style under a new persona: that of a confused protagonist sorting through a barrage of emotions, collecting shards in order to rebuild a shattered heart.

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The album’s first uplifting track “Up in Hudson” starts with a heavy dose of nostalgia, as we look back on the beginning of a romantic partnership: “The first time ever I saw your face, laid my eyes on you was the Bowery Ballroom stage, you were shredding Marshall tubes”. Though as with so many other works about breakups (I’m looking at you Blue Valentine), the upbeat moments of “Up in Hudson,” only serve to make the overall story more devastating. Over a bouncy and percussive bassline, he sings of their love and beautiful memories (such as writing “Stillness is the Move”), but periodically flashes forward to present day, where we find our protagonist feeling alone “just up in Hudson, bored and destructive, knowing that nothing lasts.”

As a long-time fan, I couldn’t help but notice that the fleeting vocal harmonies (a hallmark of the Dirty Projectors style) are no longer collaborative. This is, of course, in contrast to the dynamite female vocalists we’ve seen in the past *cough* Coffman *cough*. I won’t speculate as to his reasons for going it alone, but maybe, just maybe, it’s his way of saying she’s irreplaceable.  

From there, the record spirals through a series of manic highs and isolated lows. He uses jarring synths to signal mood swings on tracks like “Work Together” and “Ascent Through Clouds;” he betrays his love of modern R&B production in the angular “Death Spiral” and he uses beautiful textures and orchestration on “Little Bubble” to remind us that love has both the power to fill voids and the power to create them. Fortunately, from somewhere within the dark and turbid waters, he finds a glimmer of hope called “Cool Your Heart.”

“Cool Your Heart” showcases Longstreth’s ability to make hit songs out of pure weirdness. With stunning vocals from Dawn Richard and lyrics from Solange Knowles (our 2016 AOTY winner), this track gives the album a well-deserved cathartic release. The fog recedes and we find our protagonist practicing self-acceptance, amidst the realization that love’s beauty is the journey, and not the destination.

The album ends with “I See You”, taking a page from the book of Outkast by using “bridal chorus” organ for the centerpiece of a breakup song. Here, the religious overtones also emphasize the song’s focus on forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s a deeply personal track that, to be perfectly honest, wasn’t meant for us.  Confused? You’ll just have to see for yourself.

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