“You said he was never intending, to break up our scene in this way/But there ain’t any use in pretending, it could happen to us any day” – Ace – How Long
When is a breakup record not a breakup record? Given pop’s perennial alliance with heartache, it’s easy to see why “How long has this been going on?” is so often misheard as the demand of a lover spurned. But the two-timing was musical – a bassist secretly working elsewhere – and the playing away of the four-stringed variety.
Musical and romantic relationships are not so different, perhaps. And, from The Visitors to Rumours, there’s a tradition of breakup records – like Dirty Projectors – reflecting fissures in both.
When is a breakup record a breakup record? When it bellows “[This] is a BREAKUP ALBUM” from its (hilariously aggrandising) press notes, for one thing. It was written following (front- and now main- man) Dave Longstreth’s split with vocalist and guitarist Amber Coffman, whose harmonies interlocked so beatifically with Angel Deradoorian over the last few albums. Now both are gone and, aside from a few key collaborators, Longstreth once again is Dirty Projectors. Self-titling the album suggests a choice, or a chance, to assert or recapture identity, giving another layer of meaning to the opening Keep Your Name.
“I don’t know why you abandoned me,” Longstreth sings, as chiming church bells are silenced, voice pitch-shifted to the point of gross, lachrymose parody. Built around skeletal clipping beats and treated piano, Keep Your Name’s choruses repeatedly use a pitched-up sample of Impregnable Question, taken from Swing Lo Magellan. Tellingly – Longstreth and Coffman split shortly after touring the album – the original line (“And though we don’t see eye to eye, I need you/And you’re always on my mind”) is cut short, leaving “We don’t see eye to eye”.
If Longstreth has been toying with contemporary R&B’s twitches and quirks since 2009’s astonishing Bitte Orca, rightly recognising the shared blood between producers like Timbaland – whose engineering comrade Jimmy Douglass mixed the album – and the more experimental, ‘difficult’ music with which a band like Dirty Projectors is normally associated (“at times irritatingly proud of their own complexity”, according to Pitchfork’s Mike Powell), Dirty Projectors exists wholly in this world. Time spent working with Kanye West and Rihanna on FourFiveSeconds, whose wayward, soulful bridge could have fitted easily into Bitte Orca – and on Solange’s A Seat At The Table, has clearly fed back into Longstreth’s own music. Returning the favour, a Solange co-write features on the album, but sits comfortably alongside collaborations with the likes of former Battles frontman – and free-jazz scion – Tyondai Braxton.
Winner Take Nothing marries tinny electro snare and hi-hat taps to oscillating synths and sub-bass. Work Together is a hot mess of warped vocals, keys and fidgety percussion – if it’s often difficult to tell whether the beats are synthesised, this may stem from Longstreth handing his ProTools-born tracks to Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refosco (Atoms For Peace, Red Hot Chili Peppers) to realise. And, following Keep Your Name’s final fizzle, Death Spiral throws fuzzed-up bass, baroque shudders of guitar and melodrama-scoring strings into the pot, adding necessary shades to the relentless relationship breakdown/band breakup as plane crash metaphor (“Tailspin, nose down/Now it’s a race to the bottom”).
Mostly, Dirty Projectors sidesteps the he-said/she-saids and self-pity of the break-up ‘genre’ – there’s no beardily-mythologised log-cabin genesis here – and perhaps the saddest song lyrically, the disconsolate Little Bubble (“I’m alone, and the cold October light hits like a black hole”) – avoids gloom with a glorious string and synth arrangement under Longstreth’s fragile falsetto.
The ‘up’ moments, meanwhile, are among the best. Ascent Through Clouds is a blissed-out rediscovery of the self, first over stacked, chopped layers of string quartet, then twisted, nervy R&B. Cool Your Heart, co-written with Solange, is a joyous, skittering duet with Dawn Richard – aka D∆WN – complete with rattling kitchen-sink percussion and warm, affirming brass.
And, again featuring a gorgeous brass part, perhaps the beating heart of it all is second single Up In Hudson. It’s the tl;dr of the album’s relationship narratives, both personal and musical: a seven minute summary taking us from Bowery Ballroom meet cute (“You were shredding Marshall tubes, and I knew that I had to get to know you”), blossoming on the road (“In a minivan in New England, our eyes met”) before a painful, but reconciled separation, repeating the themes of Keep Your Name (“Now we’re going our separate ways, but we’re still connected/You’ll go forward and I’ll stay the same”).
Musically, it’s one of the most interesting, varied pieces on an album full of them, employing auto-tuned doo-wop, those lush horn parts, quirky, off-kilter beats and rumbling synths. It ends with a brief, spiralling guitar and drum wig-out, seeming to underline the feeling of freedom both Longstreth and Coffman have discovered. Longstreth has co-written Coffman’s upcoming solo album since the split, and the tone here (“Wash it away, wash it away/All of the pain, all of the pain and anger”) is ultimately uplifting.
Dirty Projectors may be a breakup record, and one with its fair share of petty sniping (Keep Your Name’s pointed “What I want from art is truth, what you want is fame” is fairly hard to swallow without the suggestions elsewhere that Longstreth is playing characters) but, cathartic and redemptive, it’s one worth getting to know.
“What we gave, we will always retain/I remember and I will remain/Proud and glad you were in my life” – I See You