This one is going to be divisive.
Already a few fans have lambasted Dave Longstreth’s new direction, which is understandable. The Dirty Projector’s three albums between 2007 and 2012 were some of the best albums of their respective years, and occasionally, Dave Longstreth’s guitar playing, Amber Coffman’s vocal harmonies, or unexpected (and natural) song shifts (maybe all three at once) hit a mark that few other bands could. There’s not a single thing on their new album — their first in five years, and the first since Longstreth’s break-up with Coffman — that’s worthy of Coffman’s heavenly vocals on “Rise Above” or the John Wesley Harding-inspired bass-line of “Swing Lo Magellan”. In other words, Longstreth has discarded everything that made him a critical darling in the first place.
And given the musical climate — last year saw well-received entries from James Blake, Bon Iver, and Frank Ocean — some might be tempted to accuse Longstreth of bandwagon hoping. I would remind them that he hasn’t spent the last five years sitting on his thumbs. That he helped with Joanna Newsom’s Divers isn’t surprising given their similarities; that he helped produce Bombino’s Axel is slightly more surprising, but not really when you consider both artists’ love of guitars. The real surprises are playing organ on Rihanna, Kanye West and Paul McCartney’s “FourFiveSeconds” and co-producing a large chunk of Solange’s Seat at the Table (who returns the favor by co-writing the reggae-infused “Cool Your Heart” here). His fascination with R&B goes all the way back to Blood Orange’s breakthrough, 2013’s Cupid Deluxe, where he featured on “No Right Thing”. (On that note, is anyone super-excited to hear the leftover from the “FourFiveSeconds” session, also with Kanye and McCartney but with Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig?).
People are going to be tempted to compare Dirty Projectors to classic “breakup” records: Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Kanye West’s 808’s and Heartbreak, Blur’s 13, Beck’s Sea Change. And to be sure, the change of direction makes comparisons to some of those earned. I don’t think this one’s as good as some of them, though. Things get too self-consciously weird in stuff like the rapped bridge of “Keep Your Name”, or the panning in the introduction of “Little Bubble”, or more problematically, the sudden drop after the first chorus to the second verse (unexpected, yes; natural, no), or the sequencing bit between “Cool Your Heart” (ending with a drumroll that should get you riled up) and “I See You” (starting with an organ that hits you like a wet blanket). This extends to conscious throwbacks to previous records, from the “Stillness Is the Move” namedrop (on “Up in Hudson”) to the fact that the “Ascent Through Clouds”’ intro may be consciously recalling “Two Doves”.
Another problem is that Longstreth’s whine is hard to take for an entire album without Coffman to balance out. Yes, he’s always moved his voice around, but for example, I can’t take the introduction of “Keep Your Name” seriously. It’s no doubt that the heartbreak hit him hard, but when he sinks the word “me” in the opening line, I picture a drunk Karaoke wailer. When the instrumentation picks things up, it’s not a problem, but I found myself wanting a different singer at some points – which isn’t something I should think when listening to a Dirty Projectors album.
But that doesn’t mean this one isn’t worthy. A musician like Longstreth turns out to have a great command of colour, regardless of whatever instruments he’s chosen to use: the bass molecule of “I See You”; the choruses of “Little Bubble”, where chamber instrumentation are juxtaposed against a scratchy drone backdrop; the “Impregnable Question” sample on “Keep Your Name” that turns from ghost choir to a scream (“We see eye to EYE!”); the flights of falsetto on “Winner Take Nothing”; the horns that join in “Cool Your Heart” for the finale.
The main highlights are in the first half. “Death Spiral” sounds like a spiral down dark corridors in Longstreth’s mind, with the massive throb of the instrumentation (somewhat balanced out by some piano and acoustic guitar flourishes). De facto centerpiece “Up in Hudson” contains one of the most direct choruses on the album, with a horn section that ranges from providing emotional colour in the verses to exaggerated blasts in the choruses (that recall Kanye West’s “Blood in the Leaves” — whom Longstreth namedrops in the song). Elsewhere, the bass-line of “Work Together” recalls Jessy Lanza’s “Giddy” in warp speed (thus, much more anxious than the calm bed she sang over on Pull My Hair Back), to say nothing of how thrilling the hook is: a vocal sample that bounces off the studio walls over a robotic “work together” command. And doesn’t his exaggerated vocals in the verses recall Justin Timberlake, in a good way?
Recently, Dave Longstreth criticized that modern indie rock was “well removed from the raindrops and drop tops of lived, earned experience.” His new one, his most emotionally informed album yet – 2017’s most emotionally informed album yet – seeks to rectify that: letting a real experience drive the lyrics and setting. It sometimes makes for an uncomfortable listen: at first, I was disappointed with how he points so much attention to the line “What I want from art is truth, what you want is fame” on “Keep Your Name”, upping the volume in the squeeze of the final word. It’s like: we get it — you just covered this in the bridge (“Your heart is saying clothing line / My body said Naomi Klein, No Logo”). But the album functions then as a bildungsroman: starting with a headstrong, heartbroken protagonist and ending with a track that accepts the change and all but directly addresses that lyric: “Yeah, I believe that the love we made is the art.” It’s a flawed album for sure, but if it’s Longstreth’s personal exorcism, then who am I to judge?