Nearly five years on from ‘Swing Lo Magellan’, and it appears that the entire foundational bedrock of Dirty Projectors has undergone a vigorous seismic shake. Before announcing the band’s self-titled return, lead-man Dave Longstreth kept busy by deploying his talents in service of some of pop’s most revered laureates. Notable achievements include being part of the think tank responsible for steering the larger-than-life Rihanna/Kanye/Sir Paul McCartney axis on the stripped-down ‘FourFiveSeconds’. Even more impressively, he bagged a handful of production credits on last year’s Solange masterpiece ‘A Seat At The Table’.
Fast-forward to today, and Longstreth’s forays into pop and hip-hop have served to inform his own labour of love, with ‘Dirty Projectors’ representing a drastic re-imagining of possibilities.
On the surface, the record bears all the trademarks of a Dirty Projectors release: impossible rhythms and constantly shifting meters, clapping percussion and hocketing. Look a little deeper, however, and it’s unlike anything we’ve heard from the band before. Longstreth dices bits and pieces to great effect, most notably pasting the “we don’t see eye to eye” snippet from ‘Impregnable Question’ onto the album’s first single ‘Keep Your Name’.
Back when the track first dropped in September, it was hard not to notice that something was up. After all, the first words we hear ring out from Dave Longstreth’s pitch-shifted baritone are a lament: “I don’t know why you abandoned me”.
This, unsurprisingly, fuelled speculation that Longstreth and beloved band member Amber Coffman had called time on their relationship, news which was all but confirmed a few months later upon the release of the gorgeous and heartbroken ‘Little Bubble’. Fans instantly mourned Coffman’s departure as they would a death in the family, and her vacancy is not only heard across the album’s nine tracks, but memorialised too in its ominous cover art.
The same colourful spheres that encircle Coffman and fellow ex-Projector Angel Deradoorian on the bright white cover of ‘Bitte Orca’ reappear, this time darkened, filled in with wooden mouldings, and paired with the bleakest, most shadowed of sheets. It’s a powerful image, and one that deftly complements the more tangible insights offered on ‘Up In Hudson’, a seven and a half-minute odyssey that witnesses Longstreth backtracking to the genesis of his relationship with Coffman. Without doubt the record’s crown jewel, the track rides a motorik rumble toward its love-struck refrain before descending into a pit of guitar feedback and festive percussion.
‘Work Together’ enters with a jaunty piano before spliced vocals give way to a heavily-doctored and self-inflicted zinger - “complex plans and high ideals, but he treats people poorly”. ‘Winner Take Nothing’ follows a similar lead, showcasing the Yale grad’s songwriting chops but also issuing a reminder of his penchant for risk-taking, with none more obvious, and more resoundingly on-point, than when ‘Keep Your Name’ sees Longstreth do his best Kendrick with a stinging confession: “I wasn’t there for you / I didn’t pay attention / I didn’t take you seriously / and I didn’t listen”.
The autotune that Longstreth keeps close at hand throughout is called into play once again on the dynamically evolving and intricately complex ‘Ascent Through Clouds’, serving as an apt foil for ‘Cool Your Heart’, a tropical pop number featuring D∆WN that makes a strong case as the most puzzlingly straightforward Dirty Projectors track ever. The record draws to a close with a glimmer of light in the form of the magisterial organ-led trot ‘I See You’, a song which offers the perfect fit for a Longstreth proclamation as grand as “the love we made is the art”.
It’s a slightly bittersweet end to what is a slightly bittersweet album. The synthetic, refined gloom that lurks over it stands in stark contrast to the organic and freeform elasticity of its predecessors. Both ‘Swing Lo’ and ‘Bitte Orca’ feel birthed from a melding of minds — the products of many people together in a room creating something beautifully imperfect.
Here, it’s more or less just Dave, all on his lonesome, twiddling and prodding and perfecting, a reality which makes ‘Dirty Projectors’ a disruption, but a pleasant one at that — it affords listeners the space to grapple with the loss of Dirty Projectors in their previous form, while dispensing enough nurturing, boundary-breaking tonic to ensure that the first run-out for the project's next chapter is shrouded in optimism rather than dissolution, unforeseen obstacles and all.
Words: Noveen Bajpai
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