Working alone, Dave Longstreth opens a window into his newly single mind with his intimate and masterful new record.
Dirty Projectors is a different album for a different Dave Longstreth, and a very different Dirty Projectors. As the frontman and main creative force, Longstreth considers his band to be an eclectic, ever changing musical reflection of his life. For years this included his romantic partner and bandmate Amber Coffman— prominent vocalist and guitarist on the acclaimed albums Bitte Orca and Swing Lo Magellan. In interviews, Longstreth talks about the blurred lines in their relationship between musical collaboration and romance. If Dirty Projectors is a musical reflection of Longstreth, it’s only natural that Coffman’s influence runs deep.
Four years later, Dirty Projectors is a solo album because Dave Longstreth is a solo man. If Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak is the breakup album of the 2000s, Dirty Projectors is the breakup album of this decade. Longstreth unabashedly promotes this lineage, both in the press and in the music itself. “I love 808s,” he says in an interview with Paste Magazine, “not only the Auto-Tune, but just in general the embrace of a kind of digital style of working.” On “Winner Take Nothing,” the sixth track and darkest point of the LP, he whispers “it’s just been 808s for the eight days since our restart went heartbreak.” The arrangement, of course, heavily features the iconic drum machine.
As far as breakup albums go, this release puts forth a remarkably cohesive narrative and a rare journey of emotional maturity. It’s intimate and it’s relatable. Longstreth spends the first six tracks essentially chronicling his emotional descent into depression and loneliness following his parting with Coffman. On “Death Spiral,” a standout track, the end of their relationship is compared to a fiery plane crash. In a departure from the largely analog style of his previous work, abrasive synths and aggressive drum tracks back a deliberate and poignant lyrical narrative throughout the album. While longtime fans will find comfort in the fundamentally familiar dissonance of Longstreth’s arrangements, it is a significant departure from the band’s back catalog.
Be that as it may, Longstreth does not shy away from trends or obscure his influences. Listeners may be reminded of several recent high profile releases in the greater indie sphere. There is a lot in common here specifically with Bon Iver’s 22, A Million and James Blake’s The Colour In Everything. Both are generally acclaimed albums from last year and both wear Kanye West on their sleeves. Longstreth, in fact, collaborated directly with West in 2013 on the single “Fourfiveseconds,” and seems to have been adopted into his creative enclave. It’s not surprising then that Elon Rutberg, who co-wrote the majority of West’s Yeezus, also contributed to this release. It shows.
But Dirty Projectors as an album is a lot more than Kanye-inspired abrasive synth arrangements and vocal distortion. Longstreth’s songwriting is varied and impactful. Sharp drum tracks and delicate piano lines come together with his masterful digital production and storytelling to produce an album that’s nothing short of remarkable. “Keep Your Name,” the opening track, begins with church bells evocative of a wedding and proceeds to brilliantly introduce the emotional direction of the album. Warped samples of Coffman’s vocals from the track “Impregnable Question” from Swing Lo Magellan are used in the chorus as a powerful self-referential callback to what’s now ancient history.
Lyrically, Longstreth paints an intimate picture of the emotional fallout of his breakup. But he doesn’t wallow in it. As the album progresses, so does he, reaching the climax on “Ascent Through Clouds.” The track drops suddenly from a delicate and sparse electronic arrangement to thumping bass and distorted female vocals as Longstreth himself begins to ascend from rock bottom. “I gotta go my own way.” Deep and distorted, his voice signals the end of the song and the beginning of his recovery. “I See You” closes the album with a wedding-like organ melody, a lyrical recap of the emotional growth of the record, and a dash of timid optimism for the future.
Dave Longstreth describes Dirty Projectors as in some ways “kaleidoscope,” a distorted and fragmented, yet intimate and honest picture of his post-Amber journey. It’s an album that simultaneously follows trends and shows us something we’ve never seen before. Distilled to the bare minimum, it’s brilliant. In music, in lyrics, and in production, Longstreth working alone has outshined his history with Coffman. Dirty Projectors is itself the happy ending that it hopes for.