Release Date: February 21, 2017
[Note: This album review is part of a paired set of reviews meant to be considered together: see Amber Coffman’s City of No Reply for the corresponding review.]
I had a plan for this review. It was going to be about how my friend John hates the Dirty Projectors and how I always try to convince him that they are a band worth listening to. In doing so, I’d touch on the noteworthy aspects of the band in general, and this album, in particular. Easy-peasy. The release of Amber Coffman’s City of No Reply left that plan in tatters. As much as I want my album reviews to be discrete, encapsulated works, capable of standing on their own, this one can’t without the context of Coffman’s record. My pre-Coffman listens to Dirty Projectors took the album at face-value. A tortured break-up record that was a bit pointed in places, but ultimately came to a place of reconciliation.
Once I heard City of No Reply‘s last track, “Kindness,” something changed. Dirty Projectors now strikes me as an exercise in manipulation. Longstreth chose to mirror Coffman’s final track with his own called “I See You.” The lyrics are all hopeful and forgiving; however, the music is lifted straight from “Kindness” (with a few tweaks). Thus, the song evokes the character of a guy who can’t let go, but thinks he has. Oh what tortured webs we weave. A feature in the New York Times claims that the sharing between the two albums was “an act of symbolic accord” and even suggests that it was in fact Coffman’s “Kindness” that borrowed from Longstreth’s “I See You.” Hmm… that undercuts my whole argument. If I’d have only known that beforehand. So maybe the timeline I presented in the City of No Reply review was all wrong. Or maybe not. I don’t know, there really is a lot of conflicting information swirling around.
And yet, despite the creepy feeling that this unexpected borrowing elicited in me, I’m not quite sure what to do with my misgivings. Does it change my overall estimation of the album? Should it? This line of questioning brings up a good point–I haven’t really even talked much about the album itself yet.
Dirty Projectors unfolds fairly differently from recent releases by its namesake band. For one, this is primarily a solo effort. Where we would’ve had female voices providing stabbing harmony lines, now we just have a chorus of Longstreth. Where we previously had more traditional guitar, bass, and drums (woven together in complex ways), now we have all sorts of synths, percussion, and vocal effects. Another disjuncture comes in the lyrics. The band’s most recent album, Swing Lo Magellan, had only a few personal moments, like the hopeful declaration of love in “Impregnable Question”:
“What’s mine is yours, in happiness and strife. You’re my love and I want you in my life.”
The song comes back with a vengeance on Dirty Projectors’ mopey, yet caustic opening track, “Keep Your Name.” The line “we don’t see eye to eye” is sampled and pitch-shifted into Chipmunks’ territory, underscoring just how distorted Longstreth’s feels his previous view of reality may have been. The rest of the song is peppered with lyrics that could be read as direct attacks.
There is a section where Longstreth breaks into a rap and begins to list a litany of his faults. Other reviewers have seen this as him acknowledging his complicity in the relationship’s failure. To me, Longstreth’s delivery makes it sound more like he’s mocking an ex (i.e. Coffman) who scolded him: “So I wasn’t there for you? I didn’t pay attention? Poor baby!” There is a palpable sneer as Longstreth replays the angry words of dissolution. It’s easy to get caught in these feedback loops when in the throes of a break-up. Moreover, assigning and taking blame can even be part of the healing process. In the New York Times feature, Longstreth described his mental state when he was writing the album as “super bummed… when we broke up, it felt like everything that had defined my life for a decade was suddenly gone.” In five or ten years from now, when he listens back to these lyrics, will there be a smidgen of regret?
The rest of the album follows a similar lyric trajectory, staring into the pit of loneliness and love’s inevitable demise:
“We’re enemies, not friends.” from “Death Spiral”
“And love’s gonna rot and love will just dissipate.” from “Up in Hudson”
“You made me feel like maybe love is competition.” from “Work Together”
“I’m alone and the cold October light hits like a black hole. Growling gray pit. Sentry of emptiness.” from “Little Bubble”
Heavy stuff. The adventurous production, distinct from the band’s previous work reinforces the sense that this album represents a clean break from the past. Or, I should say, a very messy break. You can’t help but wonder if, sitting through the recording of Coffman’s songs of heartbreak on City of No Reply, Longstreth got the idea that he could use her heartbreak as a springboard to finally get some closure. And maybe it was just salt in the old wounds that made him want to reciprocate. Staying friends is a nice idea, but doesn’t always work.
So when Dirty Projectors reaches its conclusion with “I See You,” Longstreth presents an air of amicability:
“Forgiveness, reconciliation, gratitude, you know me and I know you… I believe that the love we made is the art.”
The thing with personal journeys of post-break-up healing is that they are always one-sided. We take it for granted that the other person involved will process their pain in a similar way. But maybe they don’t want to feel like their six-year relationship was just an art project. Longstreth talks a good game, but the fact that he and Coffman are no longer speaking, coupled with his musical mirroring undercuts the notion that there has been any real reconciliation.
In my review of City of No Reply, I talked about how Coffman’s album is permeated with naivete. There are flashes of the naive on Dirty Projectors as well–”I See You” being a prominent example of this. More than anything though, there is naivete in the way the two artists have talked about their albums in the press–Coffman asserting hers is a standalone non break-up album, Longstreth claiming his lyrics are more fantasy than reality and that the songs have grown to have more universal meanings. These sound like excuses–decisions they’ve made after the fact to account for the art they created during periods of personal anguish. Sometimes the art that results from such situations can be embarrassing or uncomfortable after the fact, but trying to spin it differently is a disservice.
And so, at the end of it all, we’re left with two good albums focused on the aftermath of the same tumultuous break-up. The pain of the lovelorn artist can create great art, but it also has personal consequences. Do Coffman and Longstreth take it too far at times? Maybe so. Are they naive to think that these records will or should be interpreted in the abstract? Definitely. But let’s give them both the benefit of the doubt. I’m willing to believe that they made these albums with the best of intentions. They do each end hopefully, after all. Relationships are fraught things. As songwriters, Longstreth and Coffman processed their emotions the best way they knew how–in song. Hopefully, in gifting these songs to the listening public, they’ve both found some measure of peace.