by: Max Freedman//
Which album is better: Bitte Orca or Swing Lo Magellan? Among fans of Dirty Projectors, a band that critics and listeners alike hold dear for their frayed, wailing take on oft-treaded pop and rock forms, this is a question that’s been a source of endless debate since Swing Lo Magellan’s release in summer 2012. The music media will ostensibly say it’s Bitte Orca—its score on Metacritic is higher, it achieved a fleeting 9+ score on Pitchfork and an even rarer A+ on Consequence of Sound—but from observational experience, fans seem to prefer Swing Lo Magellan by just a hair. Of course, there are Dirty Projectors diehards who say that the question isn’t worth debating because both albums are excellent, or alternately, that each LP is equally good.
A tangentially related question began to emerge as it slowly became clear Swing Lo Magellan wouldn’t be followed up as soon as is usual for artists as prolific as David Longstreth, the scholarly, extravagant brains and brawn of Dirty Projectors. How will Dirty Projectors’ next album hold a candle to what came before it? It’s a question that had been creeping around leading up to Swing Lo Magellan, which surprised many listeners by scaling back on some of Longstreth’s extreme eccentricities without sacrificing Dirty Projectors’ explorative, intricate core; this unexpectedly welcoming sound mostly silenced the question of what would follow.
The quiet only lasted so long: once it became obvious that Dirty Projectors wouldn’t be returning so quickly after all, the conversation restarted. Three years passed between Bitte Orca and Swing Lo Magellan; in 2015, after another three years had eclipsed the release of Swing Lo, there hadn’t been a peep at all from the band since they released a video for album highlight “Impregnable Question” in October 2013. Still, even in 2016, a year after Swing Lo, there was just silence. Well, for the most part: in September 2016, Longstreth released what would eventually be revealed as the opening track to a new, self-titled Dirty Projectors album, the first in over four and a half years.
After fans endured what they felt was an unbearably long silence from one of their most beloved artists, suddenly, a murmur. September 19, 2016: the official Dirty Projectors Twitter shared a 19-second clip of somber, bellowing piano; its black-and-white visual accompaniment was merely a pair of forearms, hands moving forward and returning to their original prayer-like position every now and again. Two days later, another tweet, again with another clip, this one over twice as long: Longstreth made his face, now with much shorter hair to make up for an impressive beard, visible for the first time in years. Or at least as visible as someone recently so secretive might want to be: again in black-and-white, this clip looped Longstreth slowly moving through space as though the wind had sucker punched him square in the right cheek. Accompanying this visual was a pitch-shifted sample of—wait for it—“Impregnable Question.”
Namely, one line from the chorus of “Impregnable Question” forms the apex of what would, the next day, be unveiled as “Keep Your Name,” which begins Dirty Projectors with lyrics unusually weepy for a band whose past critical acclaim involved lines like “she is an emerald/in a shining, shining winter/rosette in a snow globe.” It was immediately clear that the album, which wouldn’t be officially announced for another four months, would be the first Dirty Projectors breakup album following the band’s rise to indie royalty. Also obvious right away: Longstreth was solo now, both in his romantic life and in Dirty Projectors. Not as discernible, but now painfully clear: every love song on Bitte Orca and Swing Lo Magellan was about Amber Coffman, the now-former Dirty Projectors co-vocalist and co-guitarist who was vital to the band’s strongest harmonies and beloved hocketing patterns. Without getting too deep into the story, let’s just say that Coffman announced her oft-rumored debut album only a couple of weeks after “Keep Your Name” emerged, with the passive-aggressive ex-lovers-and-bandmates battle thereafter remaining silent for the rest of 2016.
Three more singles arrived in 2017: Longstreth released “Little Bubble” not even a week into the new year, following that with both “Up in Hudson” and the official album announcement two weeks later. Another two weeks later, DΔWN-featuring final Dirty Projectors single “Cool Your Heart” landed, all but confirming what many longtime fans had already begun to suspect: Longstreth had expertly chosen the order and timing of Dirty Projectors’ singles to spell out the story his new album would tell and cast the blame for the breakup on more than just himself or Coffman. If “Keep Your Name” was effectively an overly victimized Amber Coffman diss track that inverted everything about Dirty Projectors’ two previous albums—digitally altered baritone vocals, a fixation with piano and glitch beatwork, and heartbroken lyrics replace the Dirty Projectors standard of robust, shaking vocals, rich and complex guitar patterns, and absolutely smitten love tales—“Little Bubble” offers even-tempered glimmers of the before and after of the breakup with a trippy, endearing move further into greyscale electronic. “Up in Hudson” is a complete narrative of said before and after, impeccably timed to coincide with the album announcement; its final two minutes of restrained exuberance cushioned the shock of “Cool Your Heart,” a blast of pure Bitte Orca-esque pop that’s far and away the most immediate and accessible track on Dirty Projectors.
An album as drastic a shift for its creator as Dirty Projectors almost demands this sort of careful, labored-over rollout, a marketing campaign that would only work when oriented around a genius such as Longstreth. If past albums drew him positive comparisons to eccentric game-changers such as Frank Zappa (whom Longstreth has gone on record as wholly despising) and Ali Farka Toure, Dirty Projectors is bound to instead line him up with Radiohead, Bon Iver, and Kanye West (the latter of whom he worked with to build the Rihanna-featuring bridge of “FourFiveSeconds”). The album is a sea change on par, respectively, with these artists’ Kid A, 22, A Million, and especially 808s and Heartbreak. It echoes the complete genre flip that Kid A signaled for Radiohead fans upon release (plus, the first three minutes of “Ascent Through Clouds” are on some absolutely gorgeous Hail to the Thief/In Rainbows shit), and it dives into the same realm of digital isolation and alien-esque AutoTune that Bon Iver explored on 22, A Million.
But this is really, truly Longstreth’s 808s and Heartbreak, and this would be the case even if he didn’t namedrop this exact album on “Winner Take Nothing” and its creator on “Up in Hudson.” Like that album, Dirty Projectors is a recklessly forthcoming look at the helplessness that follows emotional turmoil, one steeped in the solitude of highly processed vocals and a sea of flimsy yet supportive synths that take extra effort to properly pin down. It’s in the extensive vocal processing, pitch-shifting, and auto-tune on songs including “Ascent Through Clouds” and “Death Spiral,” just as it manifests in the looping synth shuffle of “Work Together” and “Winner Take Nothing”: this is the vision of one person, unchecked by his usual collaborators.
Longstreth’s braveness is Dirty Projectors’ cornerstone. Many of the choices he makes on the album likely wouldn’t have been met with the approval of Longstreth’s former bandmates. The beats, mostly grey and structured from Aphex Twin-like bursts of bass, feel like demos of what the full band might flesh out, even with strings outlining the edges of “Work Together” and tropical flavor emerging on “Up in Hudson” and “Cool Your Heart.” The rap cadences Longstreth employs on “Keep Your Name,” “Death Spiral,” and “Work Together” thoroughly sound like the work of someone with no one around to filter out his most extreme urges (and this is from the guy who wrote a concept album about Don Henley and gave it a name similar to Abraham Lincoln’s famed civil war speech). In its rap influence, Dirty Projectors differs from 808s, which is as close to a veritable precedent as possible: if 808s is Kanye’s least hip-hop album, Dirty Projectors is Longstreth’s exact opposite.
With Longstreth frequently abandoning singing for quasi-rapping, a vital pillar of Dirty Projectors’ previous two albums is lost. Longstreth’s voice has long stood as Dirty Projectors’ most divisive quality; in its vast range, which spans a piercing, nasal falsetto, a growl-like wail, and a trembling, earthy coo, listeners are either completely revolted or helplessly enamored. Dirty Projectors will do nothing to convince naysayers to embrace Longstreth’s voice; on this album, his almost legendarily shrill, harsh singing frequently sounds grating and overly digital, particularly on “Winner Take Nothing.” It’s a perplexing contrast to how fan favorites such as “Gun Has No Trigger” and “Temecula Sunrise” depend on the highest portions of Longstreth’s vocal range to reach their zeniths. The rough, heady vibrato of his voice is almost entirely missing on Dirty Projectors, even though it’s previously elevated songs like “Offspring Are Blank” and especially “Dance for You” into all-time Dirty Projectors classics. In a short sentence, it feels like the soul of Dirty Projectors has disappeared.
And it has. This is, after all, an album about a devastating breakup, so why should it be welcoming? As a document of the ugly, unsure moments that follow such a mess of emotions, Dirty Projectors is, above all, realistic. The cold pianos, sparse beats, heavy metaphors, and shaken vocals dispersed across the album are all but appropriate for the state of mind from which these songs arrive. Nevertheless, the songs that sound the saddest are often the album’s most frustrating. After the positively stunning first three minutes of “Ascent Through Clouds” give way to a jaw-dropping 180 in the song’s instrumentation and ambiance, the shock quickly gives way to confusion at what the chipmunk-like vocals and hacked-desktop squawk might intend to effect. Although the Eastern influences permeating the drum track of “Work Together” are interesting enough, the wobbly, disorienting beat just doesn’t line up properly with Longstreth’s distressing chirps and Imogen Heap-esque chorale. And then there’s “Winner Take Nothing,” which feels like Longstreth listened to Bjork’s “Hyperballad” once (although their collaboration on Mount Wittenberg Orca suggests a sustained mutual fandom) and then forgot how to turn off the processors when he hits his falsetto. Dirty Projectors have always garnered praise as an experimental band, even in light of Bitte Orca’s mostly pop-savvy approach to rock epics; in these low moments, the “experimental” tag has never felt more appropriate.
Of course, this is still the genius behind Bitte Orca and Swing Lo Magellan that we’re talking about here, so Dirty Projectors is merely uneven at worst. It’s still got plenty of great songs to offer, most of which (save “Little Bubble”) are the album’s brightest and most exuberant. Although “Up in Hudson” is a tour de force in loops of greyscale microbeats, it often fuses in flowering beds of trumpet and playful synth pops to keep the song fresh even before its final two minutes of tropical percussion and sustained guitar feedback capitalize on the song’s ever-building tension. “Cool Your Heart” uses this song’s last two minutes as its template, resulting in a burst of pop excitement that sticks out like a sore thumb among the album’s consistent gloom (it’s also worth noting how much it sounds like the long-lost sister to “Stillness Is The Move,” the one Dirty Projectors song with an Amber Coffman co-writing credit, one which many fans consider the band’s best). “I See You” feels like a direct look back to Bitte Orca closer “Fluorescent Half Dome,” its cooing synths giving off the same dream-like, underwater euphoria that song did.
“I See You” is also the most telling song on Dirty Projectors. It’s certainly the album’s lightest song, even if “Cool Your Heart” is its radio anthem. “I believe that the love we made is the art,” “time passes away/there’ll be other lovers,” and “the projection has faded away/and in its place, I see you” are among the most readily audible lines on this song, which is an anthem of, in the song’s own words, “forgiveness, reconciliation, gratitude.” It’s the album’s easiest song to immediately understand, precisely because it’s Longstreth’s least wronged, heartbroken tale present. Often enough, Dirty Projectors comes off as a dejected, falsely victimized collection of Amber Coffman diss tracks (“what I want from art is truth/what you want is fame” on “Keep Your Name”; “you’d sell out the waterfront for condos and malls” on “Winner Take Nothing”; “you’re so rock & roll suicidal” on “Death Spiral”); “I See You” finds Longstreth making peace, and it’s all the easier to enjoy for it.
It also hints that this may be the final Dirty Projectors album. In interviews, Longstreth has said that his breakup with Coffman left him so debased that he felt he might never write again; it might not be a coincidence that the final track of the newest album from a band named Dirty Projectors frequently speaks of a fading projection. This was clearly a necessary album for Longstreth to write—or at least he strongly suggests as much in the first lines of “Work Together,” when he acknowledges that the reputation he’s gained for being a Billy Corgan-like terror to work with in the studio hasn’t stopped him from making music alone—and it’s not clear that as a solo project, Dirty Projectors has much to explore unless he experiences another event this emotionally traumatic. It would certainly be a fascinating note to go on; who knew David Longstreth, the man behind some of the 21st century’s best indie rock love songs, would deliver his most honest, uncompromising work in the form of a breakup album?
But back to that big question: How will Dirty Projectors’ next album hold a candle to what came before it? The follow up to Swing Lo Magellan has so many layers to peel back that the answer still isn’t immediately clear. It’s such an unexpected turn for the project—from act truly dependent on the interplay between its members to isolated solo artist, from hotly burning and overjoyed to despondent and wintry, from a geyser of love tales to a well of breakup songs—that the answer could be drastically different just half a decade from now. This beckons another parallel to 808s and Heartbreak; although not as highly regarded upon its release as its brilliant creator’s preceding highs, it’s now seen as a seminal album in the development of hip-hop and pop. Dirty Projectors could realistically encounter a similar fate to these albums: although at the moment it comes off as diametrically in contrast to the most sympathetic, mesmerizing features of Dirty Projectors’ breakout era, it’s so unprecedented that coming years might just prove it as thorough a masterpiece as the albums that catapulted Longstreth to indie rock stardom.