Dirty Projectors’ first new album in five years is stunningly evocative and wildly inventive, the sort of boundary-pushing album that comes along pretty infrequently. (Bon Iver’s 22, A Million is one in recent memory; Art Angels another.) Oddly enough, in this case the boundary push evolves out of Longstreth revisiting a lot of past Dirty Projectors material, recontextualizing the analog in new and exciting ways.
Longstreth has been experimenting with electronic elements in his music since the early days — most successfully, up until this point, on 2005’s The Getty Address — but he’s never been better equipped to incorporate those impulses into his approach than he is now. The years in between 2012’s Swing Lo Magellan and now have been spent in writing camps (for Kanye West, most notably) and working with Solange Knowles on A Seat At The Table, and both of those experiences have sharpened his pop sensibilities to an immensely satisfying degree. So as depressing and intimate as this album is, these songs are also polished within an inch of their life, with hooks buried in hooks behind hooks, and Dirty Projectors succeeds as an auteurist-pop album in every way. But the album is even more resonant on an emotional level. As someone not typically here for straight dude whiny bullshit, I have to give Longstreth credit for largely side-stepping the most annoying breakup album tropes in favor of more thematically interesting nuance that acts as a meta-commentary on the one-sided nature of the traditional breakup album.
The shadow hanging over the entire album is, of course, the breakup of Longstreth and longtime partner and DP collaborator Amber Coffman, and it’s referred to in explicit detail throughout. It’s as tabloid-y a story as the indie sphere is wont to get, and though Longstreth insists not to interpret it as such, there are voyeuristic, borderline exploitative elements that come into play. At times they read a little creepy but mostly, at least to me, they just feel desperately sad. There’s “Up In Hudson“‘s meet-cute narrative, which tracks their relationship from beginning to “Stillness Is The Move” to the end in fiercely personal snapshots. “Winner Take Nothing” finds Longstreth sleeping at the Ace Hotel, Coffman in the apartment that they once shared, reminiscing about watching the neighborhood surrounding McCarren Park in Brooklyn change over the years. This intense specificity works in the album’s favor — it gives it a sense of history and geography in ways that more opaque lyrics would have failed to render, and that grounding is important to what the rest of the album is trying to accomplish.
In an interview, Longstreth described the album as “more like a kaleidoscope, or some kind of cubist fantasia,” and you can see the different vantage points that these songs could be approached from: the vindictive former lover, the sympathetic ex, the pithy and opportunistic artist. On one of the songs, Longstreth speaks of himself from an outsider’s perspective: “Complex plans and high ideals, but he treats people poorly/ Is his ceaseless ambitiousness proxy for a void he’s ignoring?” Dirty Projectors is very much a one-sided story, with Longstreth’s point of view given the most weight. (The first single from Coffman’s solo album, “All To Myself,” which was co-written by Longstreth, offers a potentially interesting dialogue between these sets of songs, but it bears to see how that will play out.)
The solitary nature of the album leads Longstreth to make cutting generalizations about his relationship throughout, born out of self-pity and cynicism. The candidness of the songs calls back to Longstreth’s days in the Pacific Northwest at the very beginning of his career, when confessional songwriting that put messy emotions on display was valued above all else. Never has the name Dirty Projectors felt more apt than it does here, which might explain why Longstreth decided to go the self-titled route for this one. The entire thrust of the album is about the projections we place upon our significant other, which (of course) aren’t really that person — just who we wanted or expected them to be. They’re bastardizations of the real person, and as those false projections that Longstreth has put so much faith in throughout the years start to unravel, he finds himself lost. That the relationship dissected here is also so intrinsically tied up in the project itself only adds to its magnitude, and the absence of Coffman’s voice hammers that point home. Because as much as these songs are about their breakup, they double as being about her absence from the Dirty Projectors’ music itself. Both gulfs feel equally wide.
Longstreth largely eschewed outside vocal collaborators on this album, a stark difference from his past few releases, instead choosing the lonely act of dueting with himself. But the ghosts of the band’s past haunt Dirty Projectors in intriguing ways, trading in on our expectations of what the project has been for the last decade versus what it is in its current iteration, which is primarily a solo venture. The most obvious example of this is on lead single “Keep Your Name,” where Longstreth acts in tangent with a sample from “Impregnable Question,” twisting the harmony from that song into a harbinger for the end of their relationship: “We don’t see eye to eye.” What was a throwaway observational doubt ends up sowing the seeds for a relationship’s end; the signs were there all along. That fatalistic streak crops up again and again throughout these songs — “Death Spiral” likens their relationship to exactly what the title implies; “Up In Hudson” ends on the downer of a refrain: “Love will burn out, love will fade away, love’s gonna rot, love’s gonna dissipate.”
What’s even more interesting than the direct callbacks to their past material are the ways in which Longstreth sets the listener up for the dramatically theatrical moments we’ve come to expect from the band, but rarely follows through. On “Ascent Through Clouds,” around the 2-minute-mark, the song builds to an ascending harmony the likes of which we’ve heard many a time on a Dirty Projectors track, but instead of scratching that itch, the music drops out into a scattered mess of digital decay; by the time it picks up the groove again, Longstreth is solemnly singing: “Solitude becomes alienation, and leads you to togetherness…” The elaborate horn and string arrangements that were once a hallmark of the project are still present throughout, but they’re filtered through a digital lens: squelching and glitchy, holding none of the warm appeal that they used to. Instead, they’re cold, dead, and neutered. The few times that those familiar warm feelings seep back in are mired in the past — the insular, protective “Little Bubble,” the beginning rumbles of “Up In Hudson.” This monochrome sonic palette represents the breakdown in communication between both Coffman and himself and Longstreth’s own expectations versus his seemingly bleak reality. His beats are aqueous and malleable throughout, mimicking the shifts in perception that occur throughout the album; the blending of synthetic and analog instrumentation makes it hard to differentiate between what’s real and what’s fake.
If Dirty Projectors opted for this one-note mode for the entire run, it would be a good album with no resolution, perhaps hindered by being a little too embittered. But what pushes it into great album territory is how it adheres to a cohesive narrative, following a cycle of death and rebirth. The first two-thirds of the album act as a desperate plea, a confused screed in which Longstreth refuses to believe that the relationship was not meant to last forever. (“As much as I’d like to say I’m grateful for the experience/ That we’ve grown together and bettered each other and built this city with one another…” he sings on the competitive “Winner Take Nothing.”) But the last three songs are about acceptance and moving on, and that realization comes in ebbs and flows, much the way it does in real life. By the album’s end, Longstreth finally invites another vocalist into the fold: The towering voice of fellow pop auteurist Dawn Richard joins him on the Solange co-write “Cool Your Heart” just as all of the self-reflection and excoriation Longstreth has been practicing the entire record finally starts to take hold. “Last night, I realized it’s been feeling wrong to start relying, making decisions based on another person,” he sings, and it feels like he probably came to that revelation very soon before writing those lines.
Closing track “I See You” completes Longstreth’s transformation, even turning the pettiest line on opener “Keep Your Name” (“What I want from art is truth/ What you want is fame”) into a testament to the connection that Coffman and he will forever share (“I believe that the love we made is the art”). The album follows his emotional journey from beginning to end, and to keep those blemishes of thought in your music after having a change of heart is gutsy; using each song as a stepping stone to demonstrate how you got from point A to point B makes for a satisfying listen. Dirty Projectors is, at times, an extremely ugly album, but aren’t breakups meant to be extremely ugly? You can’t give your heart to someone and take it back very easily. But Dirty Projectors is about dismantling those expectations we’ve placed on someone else, which are linked to our own self-worth and value, and realizing that they are their own person, with their own desires and goals independent of your own, and finally letting go. Or as Longstreth puts it, pretty on the nose, by the end: “The projection has faded away/ And in its place, I see you.”
Dirty Projectors is out 2/24 via Domino.