David Longstreth’s recent comments on Instagram regarding the decay of the concept of indie rock are as valid a critique that I’ve yet read on the past decade-plus of Western music culture. Even if he walked it back post-inflammatory headlines, it doesn’t erase the fact that, whether or not you enjoy the music, “indie” has been an institutionalized commercial force for quite some time now; the more that we come to accept this as a given, the more we need to ask ourselves both what exactly draws us to certain forms of music and what conditions allowed for this cultural moment to come into existence. Why was underground music such a viable commodity at the turn of the millennium? What’s changed since then to allow more poptimist tendencies to creep into the conversation, to shift our opinions about trap music and New Age and allow our once championed 21st-century guitar heroes to seep back into the niche? How much of that music still resonates with you? How much of it doesn’t?
Dirty Projectors’ rise to stardom was an odd, yet uplifting best-case scenario of how the early 2000s ideals of indie rock could work within the system. Longstreth’s uncompromising vision — which drew from any number of influences while remaining willfully, undeniably itself — carried the band through a confrontational and bizarre evolution of albums that reached an unlikely nexus with Bitte Orca, one of the most beloved guitar records in recent memory. Dirty Projectors was always staunchly billed as a capital-A Art project, and yet for all of Longstreth’s conceptual acrobatics about Don Henley, the suburban sprawl, and our impact on the environment, in reality the group’s greatest successes were achieved on an incredibly visceral, exterior level. Longstreth’s strange sonic sculptures and compositional anomalies have always been more telling than any of the theoretical underpinnings in his music, and one of the great epiphanies of the project was seeing how, in tunneling into his own twitchy musical rhetoric, Dirty Projectors somehow uncovered an even greater sense of shared communication and shimmering pop universality.
So now that we return to Longstreth five years out from releasing anything resembling new work, with the added sting of an ended relationship, a dissolved band, and a hyper-specific sound completely dashed, the matter of language feels as prevalent as ever. On Dirty Projectors (perhaps the first self-titled album whose eponymous name feels as if it were addressing the project in a separate, past tense), Longstreth makes some of the same strides that he did on Swing Lo Magellan towards reaching a simpler, more common musical vocabulary, negotiating the reality of fame and royalties with his longstanding quest for individuality. If Dirty Projectors’ R&B leanings were implied before, here they are blown out to bombastic levels of flair and personal drama, openly touting Longstreth’s newfound songwriting connections to artists like Rih Rih and Solange. In brief moments, Dirty Projectors feels like a great rediscovery, a path forward for the project that unifies Longstreth’s fetishistic eccentricity with his peculiar knack for the accessible. More often than not, however, the album scans more like a warm-up, a shedding of old coats and ideas that in its randomness can’t seem to figure out what exactly it wants its music to do.
This unsure balance starts right out the gate with the queasy single “Keep Your Name,” a screwed-up lounge ballad that directly addresses Longstreth’s former bandmate and girlfriend Amber Coffman, setting the tone for Dirty Projectors’ intermittent flashes of beauty and blunder. Led by Longstreth’s jarringly pitched-down voice, which utters petulant insults (“What I want from art is truth/ What you want is fame”) in between awkward segments of rapping about Gene Simmons, the track presents a bounty of musically fascinating ideas that nonetheless seem to sabotage one another. One could certainly take this feeling of disarray as intentional, and it bears mentioning how Longstreth actually samples a previous Dirty Projectors’ song for the chorus of the track; between the album title and the song’s subject matter, it feels unprecedented for a band name in itself to be such a source of personal and musical divide. But like many other songs throughout Dirty Projectors, the ideas ultimately feel glued together, enjoyable more as a novelty creation than as a living, breathing thing.
This disconnect between Dirty Projectors’s pop tendencies with its “art” signaling is what ultimately stains the album with such a deep sense of confusion, making it difficult to parse who exactly this music is written for, if not people who are already fans of Dirty Projectors. “Up In Hudson” hits a lovely, theatrical stride that even culminates in an outro jam reminiscent of none other than LCD Soundsystem. But as the lyrics explicitly detail the events leading to Longstreth and Coffman’s meeting and eventual dissolve, the song begs the question of whether it could truly stand outside this band’s specific cult of personality. Elsewhere, “Ascent Through Clouds” achieves an aching beauty in its fingerpicked guitar opening (despite the somewhat redundant autotune), before suddenly flipping the switch into a shuffling house number, replete with unsavory electronic noise and Yeezus-esque vocalizations that leave the track in a weird yet strangely run-of-the-mill middle ground. Where Longstreth really flounders, however, is in his attempts at full-on R&B camp, in the goofy self-destructive rap of “Death Spiral,” the Bollywood techno squelch of “Work Together,” and the mumbling nothingness of “Winner Take Nothing.” These pieces function mainly as insular gestures toward eclectic pop, unusual collections of sound that unfortunately lack the melodic punch of the styles that it attempts to ape.
There is one saving grace on Dirty Projectors, however, and that is in the delicately heartbreaking requiem of “Little Bubble,” the most openly emotional song Longstreth has written to date. Between a repeating sequence in which Longstreth juxtaposes the warmth of lying next to Coffman in the morning against the cold desperation of waking up to an empty room, “Little Bubble” is a concoction wholly beholden to Dirty Projectors, a sparse meditation on the futility and longing in dreams, and an apt metaphor on the collapse of indie rock ideology, depending on how you look at it. Some of this forward-looking sensibility makes it into “Cool Your Heart” as well, an admittedly light Vampire Weekend ska that nonetheless deploys its mayhem sampling in support of a freeing, shake-it-off beach jam with Dawn Richard. Where so much of Dirty Projectors stumbles, songs like these light a new path forward for Longstreth, a marriage of the unorthodox and the ubiquitous that tucks a subtle composerly wit into something much larger than itself.
If anything, Dirty Projectors is a necessary document of Longstreth picking up the pieces, redefining himself and his art in the wake of enormous personal and cultural crisis. With no clear direction for an acclaimed avant-indie stalwart, it’s a fair move to acknowledge the dominance and possibility in Top 40 mechanics on top of the scattered nature of genre in the digital age. But Dirty Projectors mainly functions as just that: a snapshot of an artist as viewed from the outside, struggling to create something that applies to anybody but himself. The themes of divorce and moving on are laid out literally and without metaphor, and yet the music still feels obscured, reliant upon self-reference to convey its perspective. Though time may have ravaged many of the titans of the 2000s Pitchfork canon, a stroll through Dirty Projectors’ catalog reveals one of the more stunning trajectories in modern music, and there’s no reason to think that Longstreth isn’t still bubbling with new, strange ideas. Perhaps now that the messy business of getting back into the game is over with, he can rediscover that sacred, arcane language that made his music seem so alien yet familiar to begin with.