Inscrutable. In a word, Dave Longstreth's work as the figurehead of Dirty Projectors has certainly been that. At the least, when it came down to the albums in the band's output as a whole, can one really narrow them down to a concept? Swing Lo Magellan may have offered glimpses of isolation and a vague sense of dread, Bitte Orca hope and rejections of the norm, but there's no pinning them down to something simply identifiable. Even taking on a “covers album” with Rise Above, the idea was distorted into something 100% his own and unidentifiable. If anything, the most simply human moments tended to come from his collaborator and beau, Amber Coffman, such as on the softly seething ‘The Socialites’.
So, in the build up to the release of Dirty Projectors, as it became clear Longstreth had returned to a band essentially of one, this writer couldn't help but mourn the loss of the strength and brightness Coffman had brought. It comes as a great surprise then, that reduced to his own devices, our gentleman hero has crafted both the most intrinsically soulful, emotional, and heartfelt record of his career. No less, he's delivered on one of music's greatest archetypes – and with aplomb.
This is the Dirty Projectors' break up album. Despite the years separating him from love lost, Coffman's presence is felt in nearly every moment here. Whether as an afterthought, nostalgic bliss, or even through her own sampled voice, twisted to sound alien and distant on opener ‘Keep Your Name’, she cannot be ignored. She certainly inspired something in Longstreth, despite his recent awkward, if well-meaning badgering of the current state of indie music, he's shifted somewhat radically from his avant-garde leaning grooves into something very much rooted, and breathing in, the here and now. The influences of R&B felt across many current bands is abound on Dirty Projectors, with the twist that the skeptic has largely outdone his contemporaries. ‘Work Together’ thumps along with funk rhythms teetering keyboards, the man behind it may be wallowing, but the music is often joyous.
Throughout the album Longstreth is the self-aware unreliable narrator, adoring and tearing down his former love by turns. On ‘Keep Your Name’ he pithily accuses, “What I want from art is truth / what you want is fame.” Seeing that Ms. Coffman chose to spend months stranded in a frigid winter recording Magellan alongside our hero, and not, say, singing in Target commercials alongside Lil Yachty (no shade to the magnificent Carly Rae), this seems a rather baseless accusation. Next up on ‘Death Spiral’, he casts her as the weaker party, as she desperately tries to stop him from leaving in a taxi – a bold move from a man crafting an album of sorrows years after the fact. Seeing as the word is he's producing Coffman's approaching debut solo album, these moments almost certainly serve to cast him as the greed of grief.
However, as things slow down to the glacial glide of ‘Little Bubble’, we're presented with the record's emotional core: he ditches the self-pity and ire and takes an open, loving look back on their time together, and the walls melt away. We're left simply with a man who was in love, and who misses what was. It's a beautiful moment, and a true highlight. It also exposes the prevailing theme at play here.
Every break up record has its own obsession: ire or even hate, or a descent into true despair a la Ryan Adams; Longstreth simply seems to wish things to be as they were. Even as he grimly declares, “Love will burn out / Love will just fade away” on ‘Up in Hudson’, in between, he's still sweetly, fondly traversing memory. In short, he isn't particularly fond of admitting romance's continued hold, but he lets the music do it for him, with the opening song alluding to matrimony through its title, and closer ‘I See You’ bringing the message back around with literal wedding bells. This manages to make Dirty Projectors, both the kindest and saddest break up album in recent memory. After all, when something ends and it’s of no surprise to you, what need do you have for an outlet? This is a record for when you're wondering just what went wrong, just where you lost one another. When so many good feelings remain, when you can so easily return to the well for inspiration and hope, why did things have to fade at all? Dave Longstreth certainly doesn't know, and in his search for the answer, he invites us all into his sorrow. Bask, we shall.