If it’s generally seen as a presumptuous or self-aggrandizing move to repurpose the name of the band that achieved relative stardom through the combined talents of you and your ex for your own dizzyingly incendiary (and emphatically solo) breakup album, nobody told Dave Longstreth. This is far from an affront, however—by channeling his seemingly effortless capacity for writing and producing wonky pop tunes through the raw pain of his public breakup with ex-bandmate Amber Coffman, Dirty Projectors acts as a reminder of the solo origins of the band and, more importantly, a masterpiece of both romantically-fueled vitriol and infectiously wriggly R&B-tinged weirdo-pop.
From the seemingly sorrowful (but cunningly snarky) opener “Keep Your Name,” DP is a rocky descent into the the ugly pits of post-breakup grief. There is mournful reflection, best represented on the lush “Little Bubble,” with Longstreth’s yearning vocals recalling the comforts of a shared space while encased in fittingly bedsheet-soft swaths of strings and neo-soul synths. There is even something resembling acceptance: on closing track “I See You,” Longstreth concludes, even if through gritted teeth: “I remember and I will remain / Proud and glad you were in my life.” What is most prevalent and evident, however, is layer upon layer of purely pissed-off bitterness.
It’d be easy to assume the chameleonic and distinctly not-Dirty-Projectors-y nature of the music on DP is merely Longstreth distancing himself from both his musical and personal pasts, but he doesn’t make it that simple: this stuff is masterful enough that it feels more like an extension of self than anything. “I am energy unconstrained,” he sings over the weirdo-glitch sprawl of “Ascent Through Clouds,” and the pummeling power of many of the album’s instrumentals reaffirm the idea that perhaps he had this kind of potential for musical energy within him even during the more placid Longstreth-Coffman duets of past Projectors releases. Standout track “Cool Your Heart,” easily the most dancefloor-ready offering here, uses a digitized quasi-reggaeton slink as a backdrop for what is easily one of the more infectious choruses in recent left-field pop, delivered by refreshingly capable guest vocalist D∆WN — despite Longstreth’s palpable skill at projecting (heh) pain through his creaky vocals, he certainly isn’t Top 40 material.
While Dirty Projectors is certainly in a stylistic sphere of its own, perhaps its aptest comparison is to Bon Iver’s underrated 22, A Million—both deliberate forays into weirdness from established indie pop bastions. Similar criticisms leveled toward the latter could rightly be applied toward DP, however, namely that certain moments feel somewhat underdone. Staggering though the full album may be, “Ascent Through Clouds” and “Winner Take Nothing” offer negligible memorability, save for some choice lyrics and snazzy production. The latter aspect, however, is one of DP’s unsung strong suits—the painstakingly labored-over glitchiness and pop sheen of the whole album offers an addictive means of letting Longstreth’s piercing lyrical hooks sink into the brain.
Centerpiece “Up In Hudson” is the tidiest microcosm of DP’s effectiveness—triumphant horns and booming synths underpin a slinkily undeniable vocal hook, conveying what may perhaps be the album’s (simplified) thesis: “Love will burn out / Love will just fade away.” Bizarre structures and forays into minimal techno aside, DP is, at its core, a deeply human work and, above all else, Longstreth masters the art translating universal pains into ambitious-yet-lovable songcraft—if this is what solo Longstreth is capable of, maybe the album title is deserved.