Dirty Projectors has been a wildly fun, dynamic machine for over a decade now. The band has defied and played with genre, collaborated with Bjork and David Byrne, and maintained a hard-to-define and unique sound. Their musical nuance is brilliant to some and annoying to others – as my mom once said of the melody in “Gun Has No Trigger,” from 2012’s Swing Lo Magellan: “It sounds like he’s hitting all of the black keys on a piano.” But the complexity of their compositions is obvious to anyone who listens. Their new album Dirty Projectors has been five years in the making and marks the breakup of long-time musical partners David Longstreth and Amber Coffman.
There’s been a lot hype about this record due to Coffman’s departure, even though Longstreth has been the credited mind behind Dirty Projectors since the band’s creation. He’s written and produced nearly every song on every album. Before 2009 breakout album Bitte Orca, Dirty Projectors was David Longstreth. He wrote everything and had orchestras play his pieces or invited in guest artists on a track or two. As a long time listener, I was optimistic about this return to “solo” form. But its execution was, frankly, disappointing. The entirety of Dirty Projectors, as a friend put it, is like hearing one side of a dramatic break up between two people you don’t know. Even in the context of an experimental art pop record, it’s difficult to keep a subject like that interesting over the course of nine tracks.
On the album’s opening number “Keep Your Name,” the very first line Longstreth sings is “I don’t know why you abandoned me,” immediately setting up a biased condemnation of Coffman, both romantically and professionally. As if to make up for her vocal absence, Longstreth plays with his vocals throughout the song, lowering his voice to a deep and slow drone and even rapping at one point – both new for Dirty Projectors, although not exactly impressive (especially the rapping). The pleasing blend of pop and electronic elements almost outweigh the cringe-worthy lyrics and overdone hooks, and then comes the worst line of all: “What I want from art is truth, what you want is fame.” Not only does this moment seem petty, it also feels pretentious and unnecessary. In attempting to paint Coffman in a negative light, Longstreth only manages to come off as a controlling maniac; it’s hard to fault someone for pursuing a solo career, especially with Longstreth taking full credit for Dirty Projectors’ songs, so Longstreth resorts to attacking Coffman on a personal level.
The second track, “Death Spiral,” ditches the enhanced vocals and dives straight into a more pop-forward sound, but lines like “just so rock and roll suicidal” make it a tough sell. Even stand-out tracks like “Up On Hudson” and “Cool Your Heart” persist with awkward, tragically romantic undertones. While I’m glad Longstreth is finally showing some vulnerability, that doesn’t necessarily translate into interest in his seemingly malicious preoccupation with Coffman. Dirty Projectors, at their best, are known for their obscure and ambiguous lyrics – something I’ve always appreciated. But this album reads more like the gossip column of People magazine, and no matter how juicy and delicious the drama, it feels out of step with those former lyrical qualities.
That’s not to say that their music hasn’t been honest or deeply personal in its own way, but Dirty Projectors have always managed to stay away from simple, straightforward truths. So it’s surprising that David Longstreth would allow this breakup to effect his music so intensely; he’s essentially dedicated an entire record – one that should signify a comeback for the band – to his hurt feelings. Not only is it predictable, it feels like such a waste.
Though the music on this album is sometimes a breath of fresh air, dynamic and engaging, Longstreth’s pathetic lyrics are impossible to ignore. His petty, self-centered narrative is completely irritating. I don’t mean to sound insensitive, but I don’t care enough about Longstreth and Coffman breaking up to listen to an entire album about it. Perhaps Longstreth should have given himself time to move on from it before committing these feelings to tape.