There’s nothing subtle about a good breakup album. Pick any record from the canon—Blood on the Tracks, Rumours, 21, even Lemonade, to an extent—and you’ll find an artist or band breaking their signature sound in two, fracturing their familiar sound with stinging words or wailing melodies or both. The shift in the artist’s emotional direction is often linked to a creative change as well.
The challenge, then, in Dirty Projectors’ David Longstreth writing a breakup album, is that his work is notorious for being fractured. Since the band gained a loyal cult following their 2009 release, Bitte Orca, the name Dirty Projectors has become synonymous with Afrobeat rhythms, disrupted tempos, and so much genre cross-pollination that it’s impossible to count all the influences percolating throughout their songs. The band formed initially as Longstreth’s solo project in 2003, but the signing-on of vocalists Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian in 2007 locked in the group’s harmonic sound. Coffman also played guitar for the band, and her relationship with Longstreth was the inspiration for several Dirty Projectors tracks, most notably “Stillness Is The Move.”
It’s hard to ignore the absence of Coffman and Deradoorian on Dirty Projectors’ new self-titled album. Even the cover directly references that of Bitte Orca, which prominently featured Coffman and Deradoorian’s faces. The album makes up for its lack of vocal interplay by expanding on Longstreth’s kitchen-sink method of songwriting, pairing electroacoustic melodies and every kind of percussion under the sun with blatant lyrics regarding heartache, loss, and moving on.
“I don’t know why you abandoned me,” Longstreth sings in a deep, distorted voice, right out of the gate on the album opener, “Keep Your Name.” “You were my soul and my partner.”
The lyrics occasionally turn bitter in the way breakup songs tend to do. Longstreth sneers on the same song, “What I want from art is truth, what you want is fame.”
“Winner Takes Nothing” furthers this accusatory tone through lines like, “You’d sell out the waterfront for condos and malls.” But there’s a warmth here, too—a fond nostalgia for a past relationship as well as a past musical partnership.
On “Up in Hudson,” a seven-and-a-half-minute-long odyssey chronicling the rise and fall of Longstreth and Coffman’s relationship, Longstreth recalls the Bowery Ballroom, where “something awkward but new” bloomed and remembers the “obscured but pure” feeling of falling in love. Even post-breakup, the image of “listening to Kanye on the Taconic Parkway” sounds more vibrant than downcast. The album’s blood-pumping electronics actually echo a lot of the Kayne’s own breakup record, with references such as, “It’s just been 808s for the eight days since our restart went heartbreak.”
“Cool Your Heart” may be Dirty Projectors’ brightest and poppiest song to date, starting up its tropical, off-kilter beat with the whirl of a caffeinated robot. The chorus, penned by Solange (yes, that Solange) and sung by Dawn Richard, is fitting for a mainstream, feel-good pop anthem: “Wanna be where you are/You’re the right one/Wanna be where you are/Cool your heart.” The chopped-and-spliced samples of trumpets, saxophones, West African drums, and sci-fi sound effects warrant multiple listens if you hope to catch everything packed into the production. It has a similar effect to the tracks found on Bon Iver’s album from last year, 22 A Million. But while that record felt cold and somewhat detached from its themes of spirituality and rebirth, “Cool Your Heart” is full of joy and confidence in its personal, subjective narrative.
“Indie R&B” is perhaps one way to describe Dirty Projectors, but even that nebulous label doesn’t quite fit. “Death Spiral” does have an Aaliyah/Timbaland vibe to it, and the first part of “Ascent Through Clouds” would fit nicely into 808s & Heartbreak’s track listing. But at the halfway mark, the song descends into madness with no clearly defined time signature and an odd mix of glitchy distortion and ethereal, overdubbed vocals. “Work Together” combines tick-tock beats with bouncing synthesizer effects, sounding more in line with Strawberry Jam-era Animal Collective than anything else.
For all its experimental, avant-garde weirdness, Dirty Projectors the album feels like David Longstreth taking an overall positive outlook on the changes in his life. Fans of the band’s previous albums, especially Bitte Orca and 2012’s Swing Lo Magellan, may bemoan the departure of two of the project’s most vital members. However, Longstreth’s myriad of samples is his new vocal dance partner, intertwining the record with his own mixed emotions. We can only hope that this beautiful, messy album bridges Longstreth into comfort in his newfound solitude.