What do we do with male tears in 2017?
The most obvious answer is to let them flow like the Icelandic waterfalls in Justin Bieber’s “I’ll Show You.” Bathe in them. Join them. And even provoke them, when necessary. But on the flip side, while it can be cathartic to see and hear men, particularly white men, suffer—most often at the hands of their female ex-partners (who most certainly dumped them)—one cannot help but wonder if the other side of the story gets drowned out in the process.
This is all to say: Maybe what we don’t need right now is another breakup album from a male vocalist. (Other heartbreak-heavy drops include Bieber, Drake, and The Weeknd, countered by Adele and Beyoncé.) But then again, maybe David Longstreth of the Dirty Projectors is the one who can save the genre from all the other mopey singer-songwriters.
If it isn’t obvious by now, this writer approached the new self-titled Dirty Projectors album fully in the corner of Amber Coffman. To back up a bit, the Dirty Projectors are an American indie rock band founded in 2002 by David Longstreth. The list of members and contributors is long, but most notable among them is Coffman, the vocalist who joined the band in 2007. She and Longstreth started dating shortly thereafter, and stayed together until 2013, when they split both professionally and personally.
Today, Longstreth remains the only Dirty Projector, and Coffman’s first solo album, City of No Reply is set to drop this year as well. Ironically, Longstreth helped produce it, yet Coffman’s first single is titled, “All to Myself,” and she released it just a few weeks after Longstreth released his first solo single, “Keep Your Name.” Seemingly, the two albums are in conversation with one another—and it’s not always a cordial one. (It also doesn’t help Longstreth’s case that Coffman has the voice of an angel.) But because Coffman has chosen to decline all press opportunities, the focus remains one-sided, with Longstreth controlling the narrative, whether he means to or not.
“All to Myself” begins with the couplet: “I can’t just sit around feeling upset / Dwelling on my loneliness.” Meanwhile, that’s exactly what Longstreth does with Dirty Projectors—with ‘dwelling’ being a mild way of describing his particular expression of heartbreak.
“Keep Your Name,” the first song that Longstreth wrote and the first on the album, begins with an accusation: “I don’t know why you abandoned me / You were my soul and my partner.” He sings this in a slowed-down auto-tune—a distortion technique that he uses throughout to represent his inner post-breakup monologue, which might telegraph feelings that he doesn’t actually believe in the present. For example, the bridge of “Keep Your Name” is a rush of distorted mumbles, much like Gollum’s Turrets in Lord of the Rings. “I don’t think I ever loved you,” Longstreth says. But they he quickly detracts: “That was some stupid s–t.”
One of the most biting accusations in “Keep Your Name” comes after the bridge when Longstreth attacks Coffman’s artistic integrity. “What I want from art is truth / what you want is fame,” he sings with an extended emphasis on fame. And if you’re Team Amber, it’s hard not to ball your hands into a fist at this moment. But by the final song on the album, “I See You,” Longstreth saves himself by reaching a more mature conclusion: “Yeah I believe that the love we made is the art,” he sings softly and honestly, no longer hiding behind fancy effects. And it’s hard not to believe him.
When I sat down with Longstreth himself this January, a month before the album dropped, it felt like meeting a friend’s ex. I went in guns blazing, ready to “stand up for” this person I did not know. But when Longstreth started talking about his work, the reality set in that he was just a musician who happened to go through a sad and public breakup almost four years ago. He had a full beard and spoke gently, listening patiently when I asked pointed questions like why there were a “lack of female voices” on the album. (“It was kind of just the circumstance of my life at the time.”) His clothes were immaculately distressed. The next day, he was headed to the Women’s March on Washington, D.C.. And according to Pitchfork, back in his California music studio he has a “a collection of feminist music criticism.”
In sum, Longstreth was almost too likable, which made me question everything when our conversation was over. But then again, Dirty Projectors is a really likable album. It sounds and feels like the arc of a breakup: Insanity followed by self-care followed by clarity and peace. And it also simultaneously exists outside the “breakup album” genre, where you can play “Cool Your Heart” at a party and not think twice about the lyrics.
“The album is personal, but it’s not a journal,” said Longstreth matter-of-factly back in January—his second day of press. “A lot of it comes from that place in a relationship where you have trouble making sense of where your partner ends and you begin. A lot of the ‘you’s’ and the ‘I’s’ in my mind, when I was making it, are interchangeable. It was really cathartic, and I feel like the journey that I went on when making it, and trusting in making it, is mirrored a little bit when you listen to the album.”
There are a total of nine songs on Dirty Projectors and Longstreth describes them as being three different “acts.” The song titles themselves pretty obviously sum it up. Act One includes “Death Spiral,” plus lots of accusations. Act Two: “Work Together,” with self-accusations that read a bit too much like compliments: “Is his ceaseless ambitiousness proxy for a void he’s ignoring?” And Act Three: “Ascent Through Clouds,” where he finds peace in his own consciousness. The album ends with this final note: “And now it’s getting late / it’s time to say / the projection has faded away / and in its place, I see you.”
Unlike this final, ‘you,’ Lonstreth’s inspirations for the album lack transparency. He cites Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle (male tears); Joni Mitchell’s, Hejira (her solo journey); and Drake’s Nothing Was the Same (male tears, again). “The three of them know how to talk about experience,” he explained. “With Drake, you get the sense that this is emotional high-definition.” Longstreth also references Kanye West’s 808 Heartbreak in “Up In Hudson,” saying that he’s listening to it while driving on the Taconic, while Amber is “out in Echo Park / blasting Tupac drinkin’ a fifth for [his] ass.”
Despite flying solo for the first time, Longstreth did not go at this album alone. It was Rick Rubin who first got him out of his funk out in Los Angeles back in 2013, essentially telling him: “Dude, this is what you do.” He then spent some time working on other peoples’ projects, joining Kanye West’s camp in 2015 to write the bridge that Rihanna sings on “FourFiveSeconds,” which also features Paul McCartney. And then in 2016, he helped produce a part of Solange’s album, A Seat at the Table. In return, Solange wrote the most uplifting song on Dirty Projectors, the reggae-inspired “Cool Your Heart.”
It was working with West that also helped Longstreth wrestle with his own relationship between art and fame. He describes West’s process as, “this kind of Warhol-ian thing where he’s living fame as the highest manifestation of self-expression.” And by the end of their time together, he decided: “If strip away all my OG indie rock prejudices, fame and art are symbiotic. They’re both about storytelling. Art can buttress fame, and fame can really amplify the message of art.”
Around this same time, Longstreth and Coffman also broke their silence to produce her solo album together, which was a role reversal for the duo. “Producing Amber’s solo album was a really incredible experience,” he said. “When she was in the band, she was really serving my vision, but we always talked about one day making her album. This was a nice reversal. In the same way as working with Solange, Joanna [Newsom], or even Kanye, I’m just there to help realize their vision. Watching Amber tell these stories from her experience was super inspiring to me. I’m not trying to do anything else but describe feelings.”
Feelings. This is really the operative word here, as they’re what allow any artist, male or female, to get away with making breakup albums time and time again. They’re impossible to argue with, and despite being “personal” they appeal to shared experiences. Longstreth succeeds with Dirty Projectors because he combines Drake feelings with Joni feelings, low with highbrow ideas. And of course, art with fame in a way that somehow feels new.
“In a moment where the very idea of objective truth is eroding, what is art even doing?” asked Longstreth, deftly transitioning from Drake to Donald J. Trump. “The point of art, and the power and the beauty of it, is to tell an emotional truth in a subjective truth.”
And while Longstreth is not wrong to say that we live in a time when truth is the most valuable and necessary currency, and that good, honest music can be a wonderful way to balm open wounds, it’s also important to remember who decides what is true, and whether or not we believe them. That is, after all, the nature of projection. In the end, I think we can all agree that the only person who can decide what is true and what is projected is yourself, and as Coffman sings in the final line of “All to Myself,” maybe it’s really just “time to listen.”
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