By Colin Gallant
“I don’t know why you abandoned me,” begins the eighth album by lonely Dave Longstreth’s Dirty Projectors. The band has always been his vehicle, but this self-titled work follows a period of popularity he shared with vocalist Amber Coffman. Beginning with Rise Above, an unrecognizable reintrepretation of the canonic Black Flag album of the same name, cresting in 2007 with Domino debut Bitte Orca (an album where Angel Deradoorian was also a prominent vocalist), and continuing on with Swing Lo Magellan in 2012. With a lineup shakeup and a break-up with Coffman behind him, fans new and old of the band wondered whether would Longstreth would revert to the confounding ways of early Dirty Projectors or find a way to one-up the accessibility of its most iconic dynamics. After all, the song the band is most likely to be remembered for is the Coffman-led “Stillness is the Move” from Bitte Orca. Much to Longstreth’s credit Dirty Projectors stars a string of wonky pop singles, and they’re some of the best songs he’s written to date.
Opener “Keep Your Name” shuffles between a disaffected down-pitch on the vocals, slurred electronic production and Longstreth in a vulnerably vicious narrative as he (presumably) offers his raw view of the aforementioned break-up. For once, there’s an easily perceptible justification for his penchant towards the off-kilter. If you had to listen back to you trash-talking an ex, you would want a little remove, too.
“Little Bubble” begins with jaunty strings but quickly becomes an organ lament about how two people in love can form their own small world around them, if only temporarily. Like much of the record, it’s evocative of the things we take for granted when smitten and offers a relatability from the wordy Longstreth not much seen before. The song isn’t an ambitious production compared to much of Dirty Projectors but it feels appropriate, intentional and the right kind of restrained.
“Up in Hudson” is the obvious highlight of the disc. It feels like a charitable TL;DR for a record that remains complexly human and self-accountable at every step. You’ll only need one listen for the chorus (“Love will burn out, and love will just fade away”) to stick with you, but you’ll need dozens to soak in all the musical movements and pedestrian descriptions of the little joys that lead to the humblingly-large pain Longstreth must have felt while writing it. The first two thirds contain pitched down Eastern melody, broken metronome rhythm, swole up horns and mentions of both Kanye and “Stillness in the Move.” One feels they know Longstreth, or at least know the universality of his experience, while constantly being surprised at what anachronistic musical addition will come next. By the time the two-minute guitar blaze set atop polyrhythmic percussion arrives to finish the track, Longstreth is without need for words, a little bit like his friend Kanye during the climax of “Runaway.”
Last of the singles is the frankly perfect “Cool Your Heart,” a sunny slice of euphoria co-written by Solange and most impactful when show-stealing guest singer Dawn Richard emotes. It washes away the trapped feeling of much of Dirty Projectors by substituting being stuck in your head with a set of principles for the future.
Where the album suffers is during the half of tracks not chosen as singles. For a long time now, Longstreth has felt guardedly obtuse just for the sake of keeping listeners at arm’s length. Much of the musical and lyrical choices made on tracks like “Death Spiral” (which owes Timbaland an unflattering credit), “Ascent Through Clouds” (less elastic than he wants it to be), and closer “I See You” (adding a gospel reminiscent organ is no excuse for depth), contradict what the singles do best: pair intimately realist narrative with confidently confused pop weirdness.
If that’s the cost for the high points for this album, we are happy to pay up. After five years since the “eh, fine” feeling of the safe choices made on Swing Lo Magellan, it’s understandable that not every moment on Dirty Projectors feels as well considered as it could be. In a way, it’s a bit comforting that this probably isn’t Longstreth’s best work yet – knowing things could be even better will have us at full attention for the foreseeable future.
Dirty Projectors, Domino