Jason Frank Rothenberg
February 24, 2017 at 11:21 AM EST
We gave it an A-

When Dirty Projectors shared “Keep Your Name” last September, their first song since 2012’s Swing Lo Magellan, it presented a drastically different sonic iteration of the Brooklyn indie-rock group. Warped synths, clanging percussion, and chopped-and-screwed vocals — sampled from the Magellan cut “Impregnable Question,” no less — detoured from the pop-bound trajectory the band had forged since 2009’s star-making Bitte Orca. The question that loomed largest for many Projectors heads, however, concerned personnel: Where was singer-guitarist Amber Coffman? Two weeks later, Coffman released her debut solo single, “All By Myself.” News soon followed that she had departed the band — and left her longtime partner and Dirty Projectors mastermind Dave Longstreth behind, too.

The 35-year-old Longstreth’s upheaval pulses through the nine caustic, outré songs that constitute the group’s seventh album, Dirty Projectors. After spending recent years behind the scenes — among his creative output, Longstreth wrote the bridge for Rihanna’s “FourFiveSeconds” and collaborated with Solange for five songs off 2016’s A Seat at the Table — he’s applied some of his musical tourism to Dirty Projectors to convey a batch of hyper-specific lyrics through an often-thrilling blend of electronica, prog-rock, Afro-beat, R&B, and pop.

Longstreth, for his part, has tried to keep the lyrical inspirations behind these tunes ambiguous, telling Pitchfork that “a song isn’t a newspaper … it’s not real life, even if it feels like it.” At times that’s tough to believe, whether he’s describing writing the band’s 2009 breakout single “Stillness Is the Move” for a lover (“Up In Hudson”) or observing the gentrification of Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood firsthand (“Winner Take Nothing”). And while those lines provide some salacious conversation fodder — Coffman has remained mum concerning the breakup — they’re inelegant, and less effective than Longstreth’s abstract romantic analyses. “You make me feel like maybe love — maybe love is competition,” he wails repeatedly over harrowing strings on the anxiety-inducing coda of “Work Together.”

Like its lyrics, the music of Dirty Projectors frequently seems tailored to evoke discomfort. “Ascent Through Clouds” fuses a straight-from-RubberSoul melody with an art-school rendering of Kanye West’s “Only One” Auto-Tune experiments, swelling with cinematic strings before collapsing into glitchy electronica. In the same way West’s The Life of Pablo turned styles on a dime, Longstreth sees traditional constrictions of structure, melody, and instrumentation as loose guidelines — and, from “Ascent” to “Work Together” to the clattering self-indictment “Death Spiral,” these instances deliver some of Dirty Projectors‘ most exhilarating moments. They also deliver some of its worst: Ponderous horns in the “Up In Hudson” chorus mar the song’s delicate verses.

But despite all the experimentation, the album’s shining moment is its most direct. Longstreth co-wrote “Cool Your Heart” with Solange and recruited singer Dawn Richard to belt its addictive hook — her voice is the only female one on Dirty Projectors — over cooing keys and a slew of polyrhythms. The irresistible product, ironically, feels cut from the same cloth as the Coffman-sung “Stillness.” “This Valentines’ Day, how about an anti-co-dependency anthem?” Longstreth tweeted, along with a link to the song, on Feb. 14. “You’re fine on your own.” If the cut’s near-jubilant declarations of autonomy are any indication, he’s taken his own advice to heart.

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