Release Date: June 2, 2017
Label: Columbia Records
[Note: This album review is part of a paired set of reviews meant to be considered together: see Dirty Projectors’ self-titled album for the complementary review.]
In a statement to Stereogum earlier this year, Amber Coffman expressed her hope that her debut album, City of No Reply, could be assessed on its own terms. And in a recent Pitchfork interview, she even argued that it’s not a break-up album per se, but about a lot more–depression, self-doubt, independence, etc. In many ways, City of No Reply does stand on its own. That said, because of the details of its subject matter and production, there is an inescapable connection between the album and Dave Longstreth’s Dirty Projectors. As such, and with apologies to Amber, I’m going to approach this review as just one half of a larger whole. Like the ouroboros–the serpent devouring its own tail–I’ve come to the point where I can’t discern where the story of these albums begins and ends. To see the other side of the coin, readers should turn to my upcoming review of Dirty Projectors.
If you haven’t been following the drama surrounding the release of these two albums, good for you. Even though I only infrequently peruse the music press, I somehow became aware of this mess. I think I was wondering when the next Dirty Projectors album might come out–because I really enjoyed the band’s last record, Swing Lo Magellan–so I did some googling. And what I found in place of expected release dates was gossip. Gossip is not my favorite thing. But like I said, it does provide some important context in this case. So here’s the quick summary:
Dave Longstreth–founder of the band Dirty Projectors–invited Amber Coffman to join the band prior to its 2007 release, Rise Above. At some point, Coffman and Longstreth became romantically involved. The couple broke up in 2012, but remained friends such that Longstreth agreed to record and produce City of No Reply for Coffman in 2015 (though the album didn’t see release until June 2017). Simultaneously, Longstreth wrote and recorded Dirty Projectors (as a solo effort, though the band still, ostensibly, exists), releasing it in February, 2017. Coffman said that she was unaware of Longstreth’s plans for the record or its intense focus on their relationship. After the completion of Coffman’s album, their friendship faltered and they are no longer on speaking terms.
Of course, much of this comes from what has been said in the press by Coffman and Longstreth, so it’s hard to know if there is any revisionism at work. Regardless, though Coffman’s album may have come out second, it seems likely that it was written and recorded first. In this way, it could be seen as the seed that germinated Dirty Projectors.
So then, with all of that out of the way, let’s dive into the album. Lyrically, City of No Reply is preoccupied with relationships and their fallout:
“I can’t sit around feeling upset, dwelling on my loneliness” from “All to Myself”
“You got all that you wanted and though you’ve left, left me to myself” from “Brand New”
“Nobody knows how I feel, nobody knows my soul. And when the wind blows, I just want to blow away. I want to say goodbye to today.” from “Nobody Knows”
All pretty standard themes for relationship/love/heartbreak-oriented songwriting. While the individual lyrics don’t stand out in-and-of-themselves, Coffman’s melodic sense and vocal delivery imbues them with a believable earnestness. “No Coffee” is an excellent example of this:
“I haven’t been the same since you went away. I have come undone… Baby I need you in a serious way. Can’t give you all this love when you push me away.”
In the hands of a lesser songwriter, this kind of lyric could come across as rote, but Coffman’s vocal line rises and falls in such a cathartic way that it taps into the optimism inherent in emotional resilience. It underscores the fact that lyrics don’t have to be specific or ornate to make a great song. Even though words are what I most often focus on, I’d wager that if you and I had to agree on a list of the best songs of all time, the lyrics in those songs would more often than not be simple, if not straightforward.
There is something else in the lyrics that I’ve been dancing around. I’ve said they’re earnest and cathartic, but they are also naive. Naivete goes hand-in-hand with love, which can make the rough patches in a relationship all the more jarring. Some songs, like “Miss You” take the full rose-colored glasses approach. Others, like “Under the Sun” are songs about moving on and things that can keep you happy in doing so (i.e. music, sunshine, new love). If we weren’t a naively optimistic species, it would be hard to recover after emotional setbacks. And since this album is largely about moving on, the naivete never feels out of place.
But it is not all sweetness. When City of No Reply ventures into accusation, it skews vague.
“Ooh, now the bitter truth is soaking in and I’m realizing you were never here with me at all and I never held your heart. But would you suddenly love me because I stayed by your side?” from “Do You Believe?”
“Your memory can’t fade fast enough for what you did to me.” from “Brand New”
It’s hard not to imagine Longstreth squirming in the producer’s chair as they recorded the takes for the above tracks. In the aforementioned Pitchfork interview, Coffman reflects on whether particular songs or lyrics might have been “too much,” but ultimately decided that they were true reflections of how she was feeling at the time.
Lyrics aside, the elephants in the room are Longstreth’s arrangement and production flourishes that adorn these songs. Skittering beats and sounds on “If You Want My Heart,” robotic, pitch-shifted backing vocals on “All to Myself,” unexpected intrusions of horns, and oddly intermittent harmonies all echo his previous work at the helm of the Dirty Projectors. But the arrangements are never quite so idiosyncratic as that band’s work. In fact, there is a familiarity to these soundscapes. There are places where it almost sounds like a record that my parents might have played in our van when I was growing up. And that feeling of comfort is fitting for a record about recovery after personal trauma–past experiences remain to color or lives, but eventually, they fade to into the background, giving way to the new and brighter days ahead.