Dirty Projectors lose direction on self-titled record
Adrian Mark Lore | Thursday, February 23, 2017
It has been almost five years since the innovative indie-rock group Dirty Projectors released their last record, “Swing Lo Magellan,” and a lot has happened in the meantime, including the release of two superb solo records by band member Olga Bell. Perhaps the most momentous development, however, has been the romantic fallout between frontman Dave Longstreth and vocalist Amber Coffman, who has now left the band. Indeed, the breakup informs the entirety of the band’s new self-titled record, “Dirty Projectors.”
Unfortunately, the record’s myopic focus on the relationship between two band members renders it claustrophobic. In “Up In Hudson,” Longstreth sings explicitly about writing the song “Stillness Is The Move,” a single from the band’s 2009 breakthrough “Bitte Orca.” Additionally, the opening track, “Keep Your Name,” samples “Impregnable Question,” a track from their 2012 record “Swing Lo Magellan.” That said, if listening to the endlessly self-referential “Dirty Projectors” is a meta experience, then perhaps this is the only instance in which a band name has actually made for a relevant album title.
While the concept reads appropriate and even clever on paper, its execution flops. At fault are Longstreth’s cringe-worthy artistic pretensions, which he reveals on “Keep Your Name,” singing: “What I want from art is truth / What you want is fame.” The line is an attempt to diss Coffman, and the many similar moments that mar “Dirty Projectors” make Longstreth sound more embittered than heartbroken. Rather than sympathize, I am more inclined to roll my eyes.
This is one of the most significant problems with the record: The lyricism addresses heartbreak with the subtlety of a landslide, and Longstreth’s prosaic approach does not belie candor but rather a lack of effort. Still, on “Keep Your Name,” Longstreth spouts: “I didn’t take you seriously / And I didn’t listen / I don’t think I ever loved you / That was some stupid s—.” If these lyrics were written poetry, they would be the work of an amateur. There is no need to allow Longstreth’s substantial indie-rock credibility to sway against holding him to a high standard.
The record’s production is similarly fraught with superfluous pretensions. Longstreth makes frequent attempts at innovation and experimentation, yet ironically remains behind the times. His fusion of indie-rock and elements of R&B, particularly audible in the beat-heavy electronic production, is playful enough, until one remembers that James Blake and Bon Iver did the same — and with greater success — just last year.
Besides, much of the eclecticism is entirely gratuitous. If their 2009 album “Bitte Orca” was organized chaos, then the broken beats on tracks like “Work Together” and “Winner Take Nothing” on “Dirty Projectors” are chaotic banality: They seem quirky on their face, but soon become redundant. This is quite simply because Longstreth is a talented multi-instrumentalist, but not a talented producer. In fact, the record’s only highlight, the redeeming “Little Bubble,” is comparatively straightforward and earnest; It accomplishes a lot with little, rather than little with a lot. Notably, the track plays to Longstreth’s songwriting skills, rather than tugging him in uncomfortable and unfamiliar directions.
In other words, the record could have benefitted from the contributions of talented artists with different areas of expertise. Yet Longstreth seldom enlists the help of his fellow bandmates over the course of the record. In fact, he does the band a disservice by using its name to promote a would-be solo record written by himself, about himself and for himself. The fact that the vocals on every track are performed by Longstreth alone contributes to this confining effect. The exception may be the final track, “I See You,” where Bell seems to make an appearance.
Longstreth’s ill-advised foray into unknown territory, coupled with a rather narcissistic artistic vision, have yielded a product with the familiar artistic flair of Dirty Projectors, but with none of the skillful craft to match it. Looking forward, he will need to decide whether he will go solo or remember that being part of a band is inherently a team effort.
Artist: Dirty Projectors
Album: “Dirty Projectors”
Favorite Track: “Little Bubble”
If you like: Arcade Fire, Bon Iver