'Dirty Projectors' Review: A heartbreaking, genre-defiant portrait of lost love


For the past eight years of the Dirty Projectors, stillness was the move. The band, vanguards of a new genreless indie music, seemed to be going pop. 

Each of their last two full-length albums, 2009's Bitte Orca and 2012's Swing Lo Magellan, was more accessible than the last, bringing more conventional song structures and breezy melodies into the mix. Amber Coffman's vocals took more of a front and center role, providing a more conventional lead for their quirky indie mixtures. Lead songwriter and producer David Longstreth's and Coffman's break-up changed everything.

The couple didn't blast out the announcement. It didn't cover the headlines of the indie gossip rags — not that there are many. But it's clearly changed the group's music entirely. Dirty Projectors, the band's latest record released Tuesday, three days before its intended release date, is a breakup record and the band's most sonically ambitious in years. 

Mostly, it's a timeline of Longstreth's and Coffman's relationship starting with their first meeting up to their separation and covering the ensuing fallout, told over some of the most rhythmically and compositionally intricate instrumentals the Dirty Projectors have ever attempted. 

It's a story of psychic and emotional disconnect that their music was born to tell, in a way.

The Dirty Projectors' music has long danced along those razor thin boundaries between indie, punk and electronic music, offering a kind of sonic reflection of the restless listening habits of modern music fans. Their self-titled album picks up that trend, returning to the collage-heavy writing style Longstreth employed on past albums, such as Rise Above, a reinterpretation of Black Flag's Damaged. Top to bottom, the instrumentals embody the disconnect, dissonance and frustration that tends to follow breakup.

"Now our love is spiraling finally down," Longstreth sings on the bridge of "Death Spiral." "Now our helix is widening, coming unbound." The music exemplifies the theme, mixing more seemingly impossible, ill-fitting instruments — mixtures of hip-hop synth blares, acoustic guitar arpeggios and orchestral samples. The song just barely holds together yet contains a ton of energy in that tension.

Similarly, "Winner Take Nothing," features some of the album's most unlikely rhythmic experimentations. After the first hook, the song breaks into a rigid Casio-piano shuffle and later a phased out, choppy melody. It's erratic, volatile — the perfect backdrop to relate the song's simple message: "Fighting we can only lose/ Winner take nothing/ Killing me and killing you."

The comfort Longstreth shows with this wider palette of sounds is likely due in part to the eclectic discography he's been building over the past five years. He produced on Solange's A Seat at the Table, arranged a 70-piece orchestra for Joanna Newsom's closing epic for Divers, wrote the bridge, melody, harmony and words for Kanye West, Rihanna and Paul McCartney's "FourFiveSeconds." 

These collaborations with more mainstream legends may have helped him focus his lyricism as well. Dirty Projectors contains some of Longstreth's cleanest and most well-constructed lyrics to date. A shot-for-shot retelling of he and Coffman's relationship, "Up In Husdon" offers so many of those perfect moments when extremely personal songwriting hits the nerves just right and begins to feel universal.

The ceilings that we ignored

Similarly on "Work Together," essentially a Dirty Projectors footwork song, Longstreth offers a profound meditation about the nature of competition and companionship: "Maybe love is competition that makes us raise the bar/ We better ourselves."

The writing has echoes of Solange's A Seat at the Table — one of Mic's top albums of 2016 — in the way it blends the poetic and the prosaic. It listens like a journal entry, with the writer penning each passage after adding a different mind-expanding and contracting chemical to their cocktail. Yet it all builds toward peace, as all classic journeys must. The album closes with "I See You," casual and playful as a jam session with scores of Longstreth's harmonizing on his final words of wisdom. 

"I believe that the love we made is the art," he sings. It's a line that feels simple but resonant enough to sum up nearly a decade of Longstreth and Coffman's work together as the Dirty Projectors. Closing out an album as exhaustively imaginative as this one, it suggests this is just the start of an entirely new era of the band's ceaseless innovation.

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