Dirty Projectors wade through emotional mire in self-titled album

Dirty Projectors  | Domino Records Grade: B
Domino Records/Courtesy
Dirty Projectors | Domino Records
Grade: B

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Through the numerous changes the indie art-rock band has undergone, the one constant element in Dirty Projectors has been frontman David Longstreth. Fifteen years after the group’s inception, it has released a self-titled album — a little unorthodox, given that these albums are usually one of the first, but fitting. When has Longstreth ever been orthodox?

Written after the public breakup of Longstreth and fellow band member Amber Coffman, Dirty Projectors follows the straightforward path of a classic breakup album, through wistfulness, anger and a readiness to move on. The album is very much Longstreth’s solo project, perhaps a way to parse his emotions after heartbreak. It does wear a bit on the self-indulgent side occasionally as a result, but the majority of the album sees experimental techniques from Longstreth, who manages to keep the tracks unique without the band’s customary use of the female voice.

The opening track, “Keep Your Name,” opens with the sound of church bells and hushed, reverent vocals from Longstreth, indicating a degree of mourning and continued worship of the ended relationship. Uniquely, he pulls out his baritone register for the song’s opening — unexpected given his and other comparable indie artists’ usual partiality to falsetto. From the track’s divorce-reminiscent title to the understated percussion, “Keep Your Name” largely evokes Longstreth’s resignation in the wake of a breakup.

Parts of “Keep Your Name” follow a different structure, however. Contrasting with the melancholia that pervades the track, there are occasional bursts of spoken word singing, buzzing like a chant, through which Longstreth aggressively represents the frenzied post-mortems we subject ourselves to when analyzing an ended relationship. This mood bleeds into the following track, the aptly named “Death Spiral.” Although more up-tempo than “Keep Your Name,” “Death Spiral’”s vindictive lyrics and chaotic style indicate the continued presence of negative emotions.

Longstreth structured the album symmetrically, at first apparent with the bookends of the third track (“Up in Hudson”) and the third to last (“Ascent Through Clouds.”) Both are of prodigious length compared to the rest of the album, ringing in at around seven minutes long. Both follow a longform narrative structure befitting their length. The similarities between the two throw into sharper relief the parallels between “Death Spiral” and “Cool Your Heart,” the latter of which contrasts with the upbeat chaos of the former through energetic joy; while the tempos are similar, the moods are entirely different.

“Cool Your Heart” is the most diverse track of the album, co-written by Solange Knowles and featuring Dawn Richards of Danity Kane fame. In contrast with the wild-eyed mix of piano, synth and strings of “Death Spiral,” “Cool Your Heart” features a cohesive fanfare of brass, representing Longstreth’s triumphant emergence from his depression and loneliness.

The mirror image continues with the final song, “I See You.” Even its title, when taken alongside “Keep Your Name,” draws forth more of a feeling of acceptance rather than defeat. The religious musical motifs continue with a background of grand synth redolent of a church organ. Longstreth layers his own voice with several different harmonies and registers, creating a church choir out of his own voice. Lyrically, too, the same motif comes through without abandoning the characteristic quirk of Dirty Projectors lyrics, especially with the line, “Heaven knows we’ve been through hell,” using irony to appreciate whatever their relationship was and accepting its ending.

Despite Longstreth’s experimental techniques, which individually merit applause, the album never quite manages to rise above its breakup core. Although emotional release is an important part of all music, Dirty Projectors at times drags a bit with the gloom Longstreth wallows in, taking the focus from the musical prowess demonstrated in one man creating a work as varied as that of a complete band. Aside from the emotional self-indulgence, however, Longstreth alone comes through with an album worthy of being placed aside the other iconic albums of Dirty Projectors.

Contact Sahana Rangarajan at [email protected].

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