It may seem odd for an artist’s eighth album to be their self-titled release, but given the circumstances of Dirty Projectors since the project’s previous album, 2012’s Swing Lo Magellan, the choice for an eponymous album title is an apt one. The experimental rock and pop project has always been the brainchild of singer-songwriter David Longstreth, but this self-titled album sees a reinvention for the Dirty Projectors moniker, with the name now essentially being a solo musical pseudonym for Longstreth. This decision was born out of Longstreth’s split from his girlfriend Amber Coffman, who provided guitar for Dirty Projectors on the project’s output between 2007 and 2012. It seems that, with Coffman gone from the band, Longstreth saw it fitting to strip the project back to its roots, resulting in the musician providing a great deal of the instrumentation on this album. What’s more, Dirty Projectors is largely based around beats, with Longstreth’s usual intricate guitar work taking a back seat. The result is an unequivocally ambitious undertaking, with this album presenting a challenge to Longstreth as a musician and a songwriter, whilst also carrying the potential to upset fans who were hoping for more of the usual from Dirty Projectors. In this regard, I certainly admire this project, as I do too for its personal and upfront approach to dealing with the songwriter’s recent heartbreak. However, as for the music that makes its way onto the record, there is certainly quite a mixed bag, with some fantastic highs and significant lows. Given my varied reactions to the singles leading up to Dirty Projectors, with some of the songs exciting me a great deal whilst others underwhelmed me considerably, I had a hunch that this might be the case. There is certainly a sense of confusion present on this record, with the electronic beats provided by Longstreth sometimes creating vibrant soundscapes that pertain well to his style of experimental pop music, but at other times, the approach utilised for applying these textures is a bit too limited to fully actualise what the musician was aiming for.
The album’s opening track, Keep Your Name, highlights much of the confusion that is evident on Dirty Projectors. Here, Longstreth seems to be pursuing an alternative R&B sound with a glitchy, sleepy beat, over which the singer’s vocals have been pitch-shifted down for seemingly no reason. This track can certainly be admired for some of the production risks it takes, but not all of them pay off all that well, with the compression being a bit too overblown at times. What’s more, the arbitrary semi-rapped verse that appears around the middle of the track’s runtime is worked in with almost no fluency whatsoever, and returns to the subdued verse just as awkwardly. I can certainly see what Longstreth was aiming for on Keep Your Name, and an influence from artists like FKA twigs and Sampha is certainly present, but his vision is realised very clumsily. The real shame of it is that the lyrical content of Keep Your Name is admirably personal, and heartrending as a result, and the core principles of the composition are perfectly good, with a memorable vocal melody and some sweet guitar lines. Another single from this new album, Little Bubble, suffers from similar problems, although not quite to the same extent. Again, at its heart, there are some really interesting melodies exhibited in this composition and the strings are incorporated very well, but Longstreth’s oddly-affected vocals fit rather gracelessly into the mix. Ultimately, these two songs, whilst perfectly fine at their core, feel as if they have been clumsily forced into an alternative R&B formula that has engendered some fundamental issues with the tracks that have not been dealt with at all. Longstreth’s audacity on these cuts can certainly be admired, but unfortunately, they fall short of the mark.
Nevertheless, the better moments on Dirty Projectors are phenomenally good, and even some of Longstreth’s boldest risks on this release are followed through with a level of focus that could have salvaged songs like Keep Your Name and Little Bubble. In fact, the album’s third single, Up In Hudson, is a very successful track as a result of the way in which it retains some of the original experimental pop sensibilities of the Dirty Projectors whilst edging towards the alternative R&B sound that the artist seems desperate to achieve on this record. The horn section on this cut is absolutely ravishing and complements Longstreth’s vocals fantastically, with the singer even reaching up into his falsetto range to great success. Even despite this track’s runtime of seven and a half minutes, there are enough embellishments in the production and changes to the instrumentation to keep things feeling fresh throughout. Death Spiral is also a stand out cut thanks to some lush instrumentation. Whilst I don’t think the sample of Bernard Hermann’s Scene d’Amour was worked in quite as well as it could have been, the buzzing synths, fluttering piano improvisation, mocking vocals, warm acoustic guitar licks, as well as a compelling vocal performance from Longstreth, come together to form one of the most well-textured songs on the album. I must also mention that the final two cuts on Dirty Projectors, Cool Your Heart and I See You, are highly significant for the album’s narrative, with the musician displaying a more hopeful resolve than the bitterness and lamentation exhibited earlier on in the tracklisting. In particular, I See You feels like a very felicitous album closer, not just because of the positive settlement reached by Longstreth, but the beautifully warm organs along with the singer’s impassioned vocal performance create a triumphant atmosphere that is reminiscent of gospel at some points. Considering the salvation Longstreth receives that frees him from his unhealthy state of mind, this may have been a deliberate decision, with the vibe of the song intending to reflect this almost spiritual revelation. Indeed, the best moments on Dirty Projectors often stay true to the project’s previous material, but the artist nevertheless makes the case for a revised approach to experimental pop music that could infuse some electro-R&B sensibilities successfully. Whilst not all of Longstreth’s ambitious endeavours are successful, when they are, the results are incredibly enjoyable.
Dirty Projectors’ self-titled album is most definitely a refreshing and daring feat for Longstreth, but the results are also rather mixed, with this record featuring some of my favourite and some of my least favourite material from the band thus far. Ultimately, the impressive moments outweigh the underwhelming moments, and the worst songs on here are by no means hard to stomach, rather they highlight a lack of clear direction for the singer’s stylistic shift towards an electro-R&B sound. Whilst many of the best songs on here are nevertheless rooted in Dirty Projectors’ usual experimental rock and pop idiom, there are certain tracks, most notably Up In Hudson, that apply a much more accomplished alternative R&B vibe that goes over very well. Overall, I’m pleased that Longstreth chose to take these risks on Dirty Projectors, even if they occasionally fall short of what he envisaged, as he is a songwriter who has always prided himself on his ability to break down stylistic boundaries and explore new ideas. Given the highlights on this record, I’m left hopeful that, should the musician pursue this sound further in the future, subsequent material of this demeanour, with more maturity and focus, could be something very special.
The Vinyl Verdict: 6.5/10