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Dirty Projectors: The Love is the Art

With the approach of Valentine’s Day, reminders of love can be found everywhere- paper heart decorations, red roses on display next to convenience store checkout lanes, candy thoughtfully left out for passersby. However, if you, like me, find yourself alone during this season of love, you may be feeling especially forlorn and in need of a reminder of the flaws of love. Dirty Projectors’ new self-titled album, released in February of 2017, explores themes of heartbreak and loneliness. In the past, the most distinctive feature of Dirty Projectors’ sound has been bright female vocals by Amber Coffman, ex-girlfriend of the band’s frontman, David Longstreth. What happens when you lose one of the most vital facets of your musical identity, and also the love of your life? Existing somewhere in between rap, classical, electronica, and rock, Longstreth manages to create a captivating and emotional album without his long-term counterpart. 

The first song on the album, ‘Keep Your Name’, begins with a bell toll, as if to signal both the beginning of the album and the end of the relationship. In the second chorus, a distorted sample from his 2012 song ‘Impregnable Question’ plays- “We don’t see eye to eye.” Conflicting with the optimistic and assuring message of the song from the past (“You’re my love / And I want you in my life,”) this flashback shows that things don’t always have a happy ending. Longstreth reflects on their conflicting motivations for creating music- “What I want from art is truth / What you want is fame.” This theme is brought up several times throughout the album.

‘Up In Hudson’ is one of my favorite songs on this album, and is filled with nostalgia. Longstreth reflects on his relationship with Coffman, recalling the first time he met her at Bowery Ballroom in New York. He seems to believe it was love at first sight- “We talked for like two minutes / But I had a feeling / Something awkward but new between us / Something strong and appealing.” The integration of their lives can be interpreted in multiple ways- he addresses it directly in his lyrics, and the actual arrangement of the song combines brass, woodwind, percussion, voice, synths, voice, and guitar into a beautiful symphonic piece. Existing somewhere in between genres, this song is both touching and something I often dance alone to in my room.

Most of the album, though, has an electronic feel to it. ‘Work Together’ begins with colorful piano ascending to glitchy beats and vocals. Upbeat and staccato, this piece contrasts with the next song on the album, ‘Little Bubble’. Beginning with a symphony of battling strings, the song quickly transcends into a dreamy synth piece. Longstreth focuses on themes of sleep, dreams, and death, and concludes by saying, “We had our own little bubble / For a while,” signifying the conclusion of the relationship. This melodic ballad serves as a nostalgic intermission for the album.

A marimba melody, similar to a familiar iPhone ringtone, breaks up ‘Winner Take Nothing’ before Longstreth begins to reminisce over the memories they’ve shared. It’s almost as if he had been so hopeful that Coffman would call that he started imagining his phone ringing. Connecting back to ‘Keep Your Name’, themes of fame are also brought up in this song- “You’re shining like fifteen of fame, babe.” This seems to be a big part of the reason that their professional relationship failed.

When I first listened to ‘Ascent Through Clouds’, I was sure it was two separate songs. However, after a pause in the middle of the song, a second part begins glitching, and choppy non-lyrical electronic vocals follow. Longstreth’s vocals split into two layered parts, as if he’s in an argument with himself. Creating both detachment and togetherness within both these separate parts of the song and separate lyrical lines, it’s hard to tell where things end and begin. He successfully translates the confusing and messy ends of relationships through this song. Taking a line from Gabriella in High School Musical, he concludes by declaring a heavy and distressed, “I gotta go my own way.”

The second to last song on the album, Cool Your Heart, is a bouncy duet between Longstreth and Dawn Richard of D∆WN. To a seasoned Dirty Projectors fan, it sounds as if Coffman has finally returned- the familiarity of bright female vocals makes the band’s sound complete. Distorting time and reality, it seems as if the breakup was simply a bad dream that Longstreth has awoken from.

The concluding song on this self-titled album, ‘I See You’, is surprisingly positive and optimistic. “Forgiveness, reconciliation, gratitude” he sings, seemingly healed and whole. In a moment of peace, Longstreth sings, “I believe that the love we made is the art.” He also recognizes that a large part of his career (and life in general) is over- “It’s time to say the projection is fading away / And in its place I see you.” Coffman was truly a cornerstone of the band, hence the image of Dirty Projectors fading away, but now Longstreth has made a bold statement about his ability to create on his own- I don’t think he’ll have any trouble continuing to make compelling music without her.

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