David Longstreth didn’t need to spout off on Instagram to set his musical project, Dirty Projectors, apart from the last 15 years of indie rock that it is generally associated with. Longstreth’s music does that on its own. His best-known song, 2009’s “Stillness Is The Move,” makes more sense as a cover by Solange than it does as a neighbor to Fleet Foxes’ Seattle folk or Conor Oberst’s confessional songwriting. He’s spent the interim between his last full-length, 2012’s excellent Swing Lo Magellan, and his new album working with artists as disparate as Kanye West and Joanna Newsom (and let’s not forget his collaborative EP with Björk in 2010). In his hands, indie rock pushes creative barriers that aren’t defined by a particular sound or instrument; his music is less a commercially viable, scene-approved product than artistic experiments loosely associated with pop music.
His latest Dirty Projectors effort, a self-titled affair and their seventh studio album, again nestles between familiarity and the abyss. Its format is a traditional one: the breakup album, painstakingly detailing the split between Longstreth and his former bandmate/lover Amber Coffman. It’s a revealing plunge into their relationship, oscillating between tender mourning and tedious oversharing, enough so that the listener can join Longstreth in the exhilarating highs and laborious lows of modern romance.
But the experience is nothing if not artful. Longstreth is inspired to a fault, peppering his record with hyper-personal details that would read like Dirty Projectors fan fiction if it weren’t coming directly from the source. Opener and first single “Keep Your Name” repurposes Magellan love ballad “Impregnable Question” to form a new hook, making a breakup song out of a love song written about the exact same person. It’s meta enough to make the fact that Longstreth’s pitched his vocals down to oblivion a total afterthought. The second half of the album culminates in an appropriately grand finale, “I See You,” in which Longstreth goes full-Dan Bejar and wraps the album in self-referential glory: “The projection has faded away.”
And between these risky, explicit exercises in telling and not showing are even more risks. Second track “Death Spiral” is a strange thematic reprise of Magellan’s own second track (“About To Die”) that borders on melodrama, while the album’s most grandiose turn, the seven-and-a-half minute “Up In Hudson,” takes a hard narrative look at the Longstreth-Coffman romance. The latter is also the point when it becomes apparent how the band functions without the chorus of vocalists previously provided by the likes of Coffman and Angel Deradoorian. Regardless of Longstreth’s mourning of love’s burning out and fading away, the vision of the band has always been markedly singular, making the band’s lineup changes a fascinating look at a clear genius working with an evolving canvas. Longstreth singing backup for himself is both empowering and a little bit sad, enough so that when Dawn Richard shows up for a duet on penultimate track “Cool Your Heart,” the presence of another vocalist strikes as a much-needed reprieve.
It’s a warts-and-all presentation, powered by the kind of ambition that Longstreth was right to criticize much current indie rock for lacking. Heartbreak can be overwhelming, inspiring, and exhausting, and with Dirty Projectors, Longstreth has birthed an album that strives to not only reflect that, but to mimic it, too.