Few dark comedies in recent history are as bleak as Yorgos Lanthimos’ film The Lobster, a movie where, in the dystopian future, single people must find a partner within 45 days or else they’re transformed into animals and banished to the woods where natural selection does its thing. There’s one scene in particular that fulfills the dual adjectives dark comedies deliver on. The protagonist gets a tour of the mating hotel and is told they host dance nights where everyone wears headphones while music plays but are forbidden from flirting or interacting romantically. “We all dance by ourselves,” the instructor tells him. “That’s why we only play electronic music.”
Without headphones on yourself, watching the characters fumble their way through bad dance moves is absurdist, lonely, and dark in its unrelentingness — it’s one of the best films of 2016 for a reason — but it made me double over in laughter. When faced with motions as awkward and desperate as the characters’, their authenticity willingly shapes itself into the butt of the joke — and yet it’s familiar, almost painfully so. That’s what David Longstreth throws himself into on Dirty Projectors’ self-titled LP. The band’s founder and frontman writhes under the thumb of his own hand, now standing on his own without the help of the full band to flesh out feelings of isolation and confusion. On first listen, Dirty Projectors is easy to scoff at because it feels awkward to hear. A man who yelped and crooned his way through bizarre art rock years prior now leaps and twirls through digitalized hula hoops and glitchy electronic dance music. But that freedom to be awkward, to loosen up because he’s left totally alone, transforms from awkwardness and pseudo intellectualism into emotive, fractured music on par with the band’s usual narrative.
It’s hard to accept that an album by Dirty Projectors no longer includes the detailed, mesmerizing vocals of several female singers (Amber Coffman, Olga Bell, Angel Deradoorian, and the long list of musicians past) that flit about. Longstreth returns to his lonesome on Dirty Projectors, but that doesn’t mean it’s bare. Instead, the band’s eighth LP sees the act come full circle. Their debut album, 2003’s The Glad Fact, was the product of David Longstreth as a solo musician as well, looping vocals and playing into the emotive nature of bare-bones instrumentals against lyrics about finches and speeding cars. On Dirty Projectors, he returns to the solo craft eager to explore without the input of others. Could it be toned back at times? Of course. Everyone needs a good editor. But hearing Longstreth go deep into his subconscious offers unexpected, and eventually rewarding, results.
Old habits never die, but Longstreth wants them to. The melancholic piano of years past gets pitched up on “Work Together”. Bird chirps are swallowed by a bass synth that sounds, for better or worse, like a fart machine. He tries out absurdities with playful, twisted results that ask the listener to join him in dance. Before, he used synth and keys in traditional solemn tones. Think about the organ on one of the band’s most underrated tracks, “Imaginary Love”, where it practically brings a charcoal sketch of the grim reaper to life. On Dirty Projectors, it bends into an R&B groove for “Winner Take Nothing” or Major Lazer-style Caribbean dance on “Cool Your Heart” (where, it should be noted, Solange and D∆WN add blissful harmonies).
Then, of course, is the unavoidable: Longstreth’s pungent heartbreak. Loneliness weighs the record down. Songs like “Keep Your Name” wallow in baritone crooning that can grow dreary after a while. But elsewhere, he pushes his own wounds until he finds a catharsis of sorts, and then his pain becomes immeasurable as that relief turns out to be forgery. “Little Bubble” uses nuptial strings and a lethargic beat to make Longstreth’s depression palatable. His work as a producer takes the lead on Dirty Projectors, showing how he can hold his own as a singer and arranger to let crescendoing horns draw as intense a response from listeners as Coffman’s voice could.
It feels strange to applaud a talented musician for walking on their own. Like Bon Iver with 22, A Million and Sufjan Stevens with Age of Adz, Longstreth follows the path of white, male indie musicians sidestepping their acoustic roots to immerse themselves in the paradox of real instrumentals recorded in studio and then splicing them up, mutilating them, chopping them so they’re fragments of what was once pure. The comparisons draw themselves in “Up in Hudson”. With “Ascent Through Clouds”, a sprawling seven-minute classical piece, he transitions from intimate strings to thick dance beats and overused Auto-Tune that, like Sufjan, works mysteriously well.
By playing God by a dance floor, Longstreth realizes the most comfortable he can ever be with himself is when embracing all of his awkwardness and flaws so that they lose their pain and he learns how to move them to his benefit. Dancing without fear is a way to do so, and creating beats that stimulate his own senses is the prime way to overcome a period of depression, or, in this case, a mid-life band crisis. At the 15-year marker, Dirty Projectors are facing a question of relevancy — and his recent private-turned-public discussion about such with Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold on Instagram showed the complexities of overthinking it. Dirty Projectors mirrors that.
As a solo project, Dirty Projectors works well. As significant of a shift as this album is from past Dirty Projectors’ records, the detailed production and arranging work shows Longstreth put all of himself into making it. Like that scene in The Lobster, it looks incredibly awkward at first, but empathize with those contorting their limbs, and it begins to make sense. The music feels immersive. His pain becomes a tool to develop strength. The final product, 50 minutes of experimental electronics, is a much needed balance of upliftment in the face of a self-crisis that’s as insightful, or as empty, as you decide to see it. Slip on a good pair of headphones, and it’s far easier to side with the former.
Essential Tracks: “Little Bubble”, “Cool Your Heart”, and “Ascent Through Clouds”