What David Longstreth attempts to pass as daring, confessional experimentation often veers closer to self-indulgence.
A little bit of self-righteousness, appropriately channeled, can be fun in a breakup album. Reality is generally more complicated, with both sides being at least partly in the wrong, but listeners often enjoy vicariously indulging in the fury of a spurned lover. There is a comforting, even cathartic simplicity to framing romantic separations around right and wrong, heartbreaker versus the brokenhearted. On David Longstreth's latest outing as Dirty Projectors, his first following his split with former bandmate Amber Coffman, he makes just such an attempt to stir the messiness of the breakup and bare his pain for all to hear. The resulting album is musically adventurous and lyrically brutal. What Longstreth attempts to pass as daring, confessional experimentation often veers closer to self-indulgence, however, and too often he comes across as an unsympathetic character in his own narrative.
Dirty Projectors ditches the indie rock sound of the band's past work in favor of glitchy electronic production. Pitch-altered samples pervade "Up In Hudson" and "Work Together", and on tracks like "Ascent Through Clouds" Longstreth's vocals are aggressively warped by auto-tune. In this sense, the album is a clear successor to Bon Iver's 22, A Million from last year. Elsewhere, as on "Death Spiral", Longstreth adopts a crooning yet crazed R&B falsetto, erratically leaping from line to line in what sounds more like a series of asides than a coherent melody. The effect is akin to what might happen if Zayn Malik were to make his personal equivalent to Miley Cyrus & her Dead Petz.
The scattered, unstable nature of the album aptly reflects the unrest of a mind reeling from a massive disruption, and certainly the musical experimentation keeps things intriguing. Still, Longstreth puts too much trust in his every whim, seeming to take the "first thought, best thought" adage a touch too seriously. The stream-of-consciousness delivery causes many of the songs to feel more like rants than considered or insightful reflections, particularly the excessive, eight-minute plodding of "Up In Hudson". This ultimately lessens their impact.
If the melodic structure of the album is a bit undercooked, the dense production can come across as belabored. Take "Cool Your Heart", for instance: the duet with Dawn Richard is easily one of the best offerings here, a tight yet unconventional tropical pop song co-written with Solange. The song largely circumvents the above complaints, landing squarely through its fine-tuned melodic precision. Yet Longstreth insists on sewing the track together with thoroughly unnecessary electronic glitchiness, casting a thin veneer of innovation that does little except distract from the song's best qualities. This approach does not sink "Cool Your Heart", but it does weaken it. Far worse is "Ascent Through Clouds", which, after the vocals drop away, greets the listener with one of the ugliest, most unappealing sounds ever put to record, a stuttering hiss that sounds like having plaque scraped off your teeth at the dentist. Ugliness can of course play a valuable role when applied skillfully, but here it serves seemingly no purpose other than proving the album's apparently serious, uncompromising ways. It's hard to justify.
Dirty Projectors is at its best when Longstreth allows himself to be genuinely vulnerable. "Keep Your Name" is an important saving grace, especially as the opening track. Whereas much of the album is content to scrape bitterness and anger off the surface and market this as confessional, "Keep Your Name" dares to plunge into the deep sorrow underneath it all. "I wasn't there for you / I didn't pay attention / I didn't take you seriously / And I didn't listen", Longstreth sings in a rare and refreshing moment of candor. The track succeeds on account of its bare reflectiveness and Longstreth's gorgeous, aching croon. The orchestral "Little Bubble" is similarly unconcerned with playing the role of martyrdom. While still a thoroughly gloomy affair, the song is an unusually sober account of relational dissolution. "We had our own little bubble / For a while", he sums up neatly, expressing the album's thesis far more simply and effectively than any of the more verbose entries.
While Dirty Projectors is about a relationship between two individuals, too often the only person addressed by the project is Longstreth himself. The self-referential snippets—from the "Stillness Is the Move" shout-out on "Up In Hudson" to the sample of Dirty Projectors' own "Impregnable Question" on "Keep Your Name"—are glaring reminders of this key flaw. The album deserves credit for its inventive, adventurous spirit, but even these can come across as self-inflating. A fascinating and occasionally compelling work, the album is nonetheless often too insular to be affecting.