For The Dirty Projectors, The Only Way Out Is Through

It’s hard to think of a band that’s more connected to my current profession than Dirty Projectors. One of the first things I ever wrote when I considered myself a “music writer” was a review of a Dirty Projectors album, Swing Lo Magellan, which remains in my top ten favorite albums of all time. The Brooklyn indie collective seemed to epitomize exactly what drew me to music; self-serious and experimental songs that were hellbent on changing the world. I wrote the hell out of a lengthy essay for my own little blog, edited by no one. Imagine how thrilled I was when the band shared that independent, passionate little post on their Twitter. That wasn’t quite five years ago, but it might as well have been fifty. Things couldn’t be more different for the band, or for me, on the official release day for the group’s latest self-titled album.

Swing Lo Magellan was my introduction to the band, which means I didn’t go through the sadness many fans felt after Bitte Orca, when Angel Deradoorian left the group. But after discovering Swing Lo Magellan, they were my favorite band — as the fawning review linked above easily reveals — and I was eager to listen to their back catalogue and make it my own. My discovery of the band was perfectly in step with my discovery of a new home in Brooklyn, my foray into the world of music writing (as an Editorial Assistant at AOL Music, where the band came through for a session and I got to meet them), and my own first adult, romantic relationship.

When the band were slated to play Carnegie Hall for the first time, I remember using an app called Snapchat — then completely new to me — to send clips of it to my crush, soon to be boyfriend. I took my brother to the concert and we sat in the front row, enthralled. I even bought the special edition T-shirt for the show. My fandom was complete. Then, the group all but disappeared. In the ensuing years, the romantic partnership between the group’s frontman David Longstreth and former member Amber Coffman dissolved.

Listening to Dirty Projectors now, perhaps I get a sense of what fans who missed Deradoorian’s presence on Magellan felt. But prior to this record, I didn’t know they’d broken up, and my own life went on. My crush moved to New York and we dated, it was beautiful, and then it was ugly, and then it was over. My behavior in the wake of that breakup remains some of the most regretted in my entire life. That period contains my worst memories and many regretted decisions. I don’t know much, but I do know that publicly being an sh*thead to my ex after we broke up is currently my biggest regret. That’s the feeling that sits with me when I listen to Dirty Projectors, more than anything else.

The easiest claim to level at an ex-lover is that they have the wrong motives. When Longstreth sings “What I want from art is truth, what you want is fame,” on the album’s lead off single “Keep Your Name,” it reminds me of a similarly condescending claim I leveled at an ex in article-form. Even if the claim is right, in hindsight I would never put him — or any other person — through that kind of wringer publicly again. But you don’t know that until you’ve gone through it.

Last year right around this time, Coffman, the subject of this breakup record, came back into the spotlight via her statements on Twitter about a publicist whose inappropriate sexual conduct shocked her. After she came forward, a number of other women did with similar claims, and the incident developed into a full blown scandal, with repercussions still reverberating. As a fan of the band, I reported on the story, furious that this could’ve been happening, and for a time, blind to how my public airing of personal anger could be impacting others. Though the story had positive consequences in a number of ways, there was also an ugly backlash, particularly in my personal life. I would give quite a bit to go back and keep some of those feelings, thoughts, and reactions private. But again, you don’t know that until you’re out of it.

For me, it didn’t feel possible to write about Longstreth’s public airing of his personal pain without providing my own context. Because I’ve done it, multiples times within my own medium, and mostly, it only brought me regret. Perhaps Coffman has been consulted on the record and is made aware of all the material, and even if that’s the case, it’s hard to hear a relationship’s build up and break down detailed to the specificity it is in “Up In Hudson.” I wonder if one day David will wish he had those details to himself, kept between just him and Coffman.

Or maybe there’s something about getting these things out publicly that provides you the context, for the future, to understand that you don’t have to skin yourself alive to find closure. It will come in its own time, whether or not you were “right,” whether or not your motives were pure, whether or not this was the love that was supposed to last. At this point in my life I’ve gone through break ups with men, with jobs, with friends, and even with cities. It always hurts, and sometimes turning that hurt into a meaningful piece of art is a balm. But other times, trying to convert your pain into something that will publicly redeem you comes across just as selfishly as it sounds.

On Dirty Projectors, it is more obvious than ever that Longstreth is one of the most talented musicians working. Musically, the record is inventive, fascinating, and experimental in the best sense of the word. His ability to fuse R&B, folk, pop and deeply intelligent songwriting with alien electronic sounds is on stunning display here. There is arguably no one with a deeper understanding of how manipulation of the human voice works as a songwriting tool. Often, his lyrics even show the kind of introspection that acknowledges his own role in whatever issues his relationship(s) may have (“Complex plans and high ideals / But he treats people poorly,” on “Work Together”). But the messages contained in this album feel directed too much at one person to have much resonance in the lives of other people. It’s painfully specific, like stumbling upon someone else’s private messages.

While it’s a credit to his songwriting that the shuddering impact of every song strikes that way (see: “Death Spiral”), I also find it a bit sad. Instead of finding resonance in these lines, I’m reminded of the times when I valued the power of my own pain over the way weaponizing it might create more pain in others. There is nothing about Dirty Projectors that makes it a great break up record, because there’s little to no room for anyone else to project onto the songs or relate their own pain. It’s not a record about the loss of love, it’s a record about Longstreth losing his love.

An album like Björk’s Vulnicura is a good comparison here; it’s a deeply personal record steeped in her own history, but it elevates concepts of grief and maternal pain from the perspective of a woman losing her romantic partnership until they are accessible to anyone, regardless of gender or relationship status. Maybe I’ve been through cycles of deep grief and loss enough times now to realize how limiting, and ultimately boring, it is to focus solely on your own pain in a situation. But, I didn’t know that when I began, the only way out was through.

If nothing else, Dirty Projectors is part of the way through this for Longstreth, and for that reason, I am happy it is here. The Dirty Projectors remain one my absolute favorite bands, and they probably will forever. Even when you get over things, even when you get through them, some love always remains. On the final song, “I See You” he sings “I believe the love that we made is the art,” the closest thing to a revelation anywhere on the album. Too bad it comes so late in the game. But it does lead me to a revelation of my own: No record of theirs yet has made me more excited for the follow-up. Listen below.