When Dave Longstreth came back into our lives in September with the first murmurs of a new Dirty Projectors record, singing “I don’t know why you abandoned me / You were my soul and my partner” in a morose, pitch-dropped tone, it was clear that spotlight that had risen was to be a solitary one.
Given that it had been five years since Swing Lo Magellan, the collaborative effort of Dirty Projectors had seemed to have hit a heavy lull, and looked to lay further dormant following the end of Longstreth’s relationship with bandmate Amber Coffman in 2013. Given the tone and content of the first few singles “Keep Your Name”, “Little Bubble” and “Up in Hudson”, the band’s eighth full-length Dirty Projectors has already been hailed as a breakup album before its release.
In the grief that follows any kind of loss, not least the ending of a relationship, it takes time to regain a concept of self that beforehand had only seemed to exist unified with another. And so, whilst self-titling the record helps bring the project back into relevance after a long hiatus, it also seems to affirm its own identity after its own loss; the record features neither Coffman nor Angel Deradoorian, but it is still a Dirty Projectors record.
The lack of those familiar exultant, melismatic vocals, however, does mirror the solitary and personal perspective Longstreth takes on the record. In “Little Bubble”, as if haunted by a dream, he talks to the cold side of the bed: "Here we lay, arm in arm / And cradled by the dawn / How did you sleep? / What is it you dream of? / Can you remember our world in the key of love?". The album version of this track is a little more indulgent than its radio edit, with its rich string opening, and its spritely piano in the chorus elongated.
Coffman’s “All To Myself”, which dropped not so long before “Little Bubble”, might be viewed as the latter’s counterpart, as she sings "Maybe if I step out / Go get some sun / Maybe today I’ll get something done / Kick off the covers / But I don’t move / Even though I know what to do".
Whilst on the whole Coffman takes a more proactive stance in the track, and its leaning towards a soul-revivalist style makes for a more uplifting listen than Longstreth’s, it’s interesting to put the two in dialogue with each other, and certainly made easier by some of the visual similarities between the videos for both tracks.
Publicly Longstreth has tried to downplay this break-up narrative in both the artists’ music, recently telling The Guardian that he 'would really encourage playing down specific relationship drama because we didn’t make our relationship public as we were in it', describing the new record as more of a collection of impressionist takes on the experience of being in the band in the years since Swing Lo.
Whilst it’s understandable to not wish to reduce Dirty Projectors to a ‘breakup album’ and undermine its many complexities, it is difficult to detach this element given the extent of how his relationship with Coffman and Dirty Projectors are both entwined.
This isn’t something Longstreth shies away from, either. At times it’s addressed pretty directly, as in opener “Keep Your Name”: “We shared kisses and visions / But like Kiss’ shithead Gene Simmons said: / A band is a brand and it looks that our vision is dissonant’.
More interesting though are the subtler, self-referential moments that revisit parts of the Dirty Projectors past. In “Up In Hudson”, named after an upstate New York town in which Longstreth wrote some of the record, he sings "First time I ever kissed your mouth, we both felt time stop / My heart, it leapt up, wow, jumped from a mountaintop / Then I knew maybe I could be with you / Do the things that lovers do / Slightly domesticate the truth / And write you “Stillness Is the Move”’. To allude to a song from 2010’s Bitta Orca that was overtly a love song, written by the duo about the promise of patient and eternal love, to then return to a chorus which admits that “Love will burn out / And Love will just fade away” is pretty jarring, and as such the songs place a sad taint over each other.
Likewise, the modulated ‘We don’t see eye to eye’s in “Keep Your Name” are taken directly from Swing Lo’s “Impregnable Question”, but whereas then love triumphed ("But I need you / And you’re always on my mind"), here we are only left with this negative, lonely refrain.
Despite all this, the record isn’t all downbeat wallowing and, as you might expect, takes some surprising turns in the labyrinth of Longstreth’s influences. “Death Spiral” for instance is reminiscent of FutureSex/LoveSounds era Justin Timberlake (and Timbaland) with its sexy percussive bounce and synthetic sitar parts. This sound is perhaps so recognisable here because the record was mixed by Jimmy Douglas, who engineered the very same Timberlake album, and whose mixing prowess here stretches a canvas wide enough for Longstreth’s complex and impressionist palette.
The comparison only goes so far, though, as overdubs of ‘death’ wail over the smoother body of the song; it soon loses its sexiness and gives way to more of a manic breakdown. Indeed, there are frequent moments of the album that require a level of patience. “Up In Hudson” begins on a soulful brass and woodwind section that would have sounded at home on Chance The Rapper’s Coloring Book, but then later proceed with the dissonant, nightmarish clown-school honks that Adult Jazz certainly made their own in Earings Off!
Whilst manipulating vocals has always been a Dirty Projectors trademark, the auto-tuning and saturation in “Ascent Through Clouds” seem a little cliched and superfluous in the already tired fashion of Kanye/Francis/Vernon, and certainly don’t add anything to an otherwise dreamy and multifaceted cut.
“Cool Your Heart” is however the record’s brightest and most listenable offering, a dancehall pastiche that’s given Longstreth’s typical metrical madness - glitching and popping to to a time signature that’s frustratingly hard to follow, but one we follow nonetheless. It was co-written by Solange in between takes of A Seat At The Table, returning the favour presumably for Longstreth’s help with the latter, and seems to acknowledge and embrace emotions in a more comfortable way than we see earlier on the record; Dawn Richard’s voice is soothing, euphoric even.
Indeed, in the record’s closing track “I See You”, Longstreth appears to be at his most clear-headed, and it’s organ-lead “A Whiter Shade Of Pale”-style nostalgia gives it a sense of resolve, even if it is in that sad acceptance way.
Importantly, the last remaining Dirty Projectors member seems to have found a way to distill the complex and compounded memories that have haunted the rest of the record: ‘And now it is getting late, it’s time to say / The projection is fading away, and in its place I see you’. Fingers crossed the projection won’t fade away for good.