A break-up album can be a powerful thing. To spend months of your life writing and recording songs about the end of a relationship, and then potentially years touring those songs, is a brave and draining move. For many, music is an escape; song writing is catharsis in a hard time. Imagine, then, if your partner had also been your bandmate, and that cathartic escape blocked. This is what makes Dirty Projectors such a unique experience. More than an album about the dissolution of a relationship, it is also an album about the disintegration of a band into its constituent parts.
David Longstreth started releasing music as Dirty Projectors in 2003, and has collaborated with a number of musicians for the six subsequent releases (this year’s being the eighth). Most notably, singer Amber Coffman first featured on the 2007 record Rise Above, and with her help the band produced some of its finest work in 2009’s cult-classic Bitte Orca and 2012 follow up Swing Lo Magellan. The new record is the first since then, and the first since Longstreth and Coffman’s break-up.
Central to this album is the name itself. Rarely do bands self-title their eighth album, and doing so here is a huge statement. It is simultaneously an act of defiance and self-definition, Longstreth keeping the name of his project even after Coffman’s departure (hence the apt choice of lead single in Keep Your Name), and also a comment on the relationships described in the album itself. Through the nine songs here, Longstreth approaches the various “projections” of each other that he and Coffman built up, and the ways these projections have been dirtied or destroyed in the course of their break-up.
Musically, too, the album is a departure from previous Dirty Projectors sound, although it contains curious points of contact with the past. For the most part, Longsreth has abandoned the intricate guitar work that underpinned much of his earlier work, as well as the vocal harmonies that Coffman and occasional collaborator Angel Deradoorian provided. Instead, the sound here can be compared to the evolution that other artists have made in 2016. Much like Bon Iver’s 22, A Million, Dirty Projectors makes use of a heavily glitched texture, relying on computerised instrumentation and dirty synthesisers to carry much of the melody. Another interesting similarity can be found in Frank Ocean’s Blonde. Longstreth’s music is indebted to R&B in much of its instrumentation and idiosyncrasies, but finds itself most aligned with Ocean in its consistent use of pitch-shifted effects; within the first few seconds of the album, Longstreth is already pitching his vocals down an octave.
The points of contact, however, do remain. Firstly, Longstreth samples his previous work, using the new context to juxtapose the love and sentiment expressed earlier with a newfound bitterness or at least ironic melancholy. For example, the sample of Impregnable Question is mangled in Keep Your Name, foregrounding its previously throwaway lyric of “we don’t see eye to eye”. Longstreth also references works by other artists such as David Bowie in Death Spiral (“You’re so rock’n’roll suicidal”), Kanye West in Winner Take Nothing (“It’s just been 808s for the eight days”) and, most devastatingly, Peggy Seeger’s The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face in his song Up In Hudson. The highlight of the album, this song covers Longstreth and Coffman’s meeting at “the Bowery Ballroom stage”, detailing the relationship’s development before exploding into the brutal chorus: “Love will burn out, and love will just fade away”. These words are bellowed out among blaring horns that get the last word, and in the final instance segue into a dazzling, polyrhythmic instrumental outro.
If a new leaf tonally and sonically, these songs do at least fit into the Dirty Projectors’ oeuvre by virtue of structure and melody. Longstreth’s compositions are still recognisably his own, unique, startling and catchy, replete with unconventional rhythms and curious contrapuntal harmonies.
To return to my initial point on the name of the album, and its thematic significance, closer I See You perfectly sums up the themes encased in the record. “What held us together tears us apart,” laments Longstreth, over a gospel influenced organ (the opening line, “Heaven knows we’ve been to hell,” underscores this religious tone in a possible oblique reference to Milton). However, after all this heartbreak, Longstreth looks forward to the future with hope: “I remember and I will remain / Proud and glad you were in my life”. This album, then, isn’t overly bitter, but is instead a document of the desolation that even a good-natured break-up can bring.
Longstreth ends by singing that “The projection is fading away / And in its place I see you” and the sense of catharsis is immense. Through these 48 minutes, he has grappled with illusions and idealizations, but finally the projection is cleared.