Although Dirty Projectors have always ultimately been Dave Longstreth’s personal project, the band’s rise in popularity and acclaim coincided with the singer-songwriter’s relationship with longtime collaborator Amber Coffman. Despite an ever-changing lineup over the years, Longstreth and Coffman anchored the Dirty Projectors sound and aesthetic, and in many people’s perspective, defined it in seminal records Bitte Orca, Mount Wittenberg Orca, and Swing Lo Magellan – the latter of which would be the final album to feature Coffman. From 2012 to 2017, the band lay dormant while members tried out solo ventures and other projects.
Eyebrows raised when Longstreth announced that Dirty Projectors was reverting to a solo project in early 2017 – and furthermore when tour dates were secured for 2018, the band’s first run of shows in over five years. How would the songs from his latest, self-titled release – a break-up record that veers from wistful to savage to nostalgic – translate to the live stage? How do you overcome the persistence of memory, of a vision so well-defined for audiences?
While there are certainly questions about the departures of Longstreth’s previous collaborators (this will be the third totally different iteration of the band over the last decade), the chemistry between the six musicians on the stage was evident early on. They didn’t shy away from playing many of the hit songs that brought them acclaim at the beginning of the decade, even if it felt slightly jarring to see anyone but Coffman and (former member) Angel Deradoorian doing vocal hocketing on songs like “Beautiful Mother”. That being said, by the third song the skepticism in the audience seemed to dissipate, with most enthusiastically nodding and singing along. It helps that all of the members of the band are extraordinarily talented musicians, starting with Longstreth himself, who remains a musician with a singular auteur vision. His ability on the guitar and ear for unusual melodic structures give the band a distinct sound, and his knowledge – and affinity – for polyrhythm ensures that listeners are rewarded as songs unfurl on repeated plays.
On the last show of a national tour, it was evident that Longstreth and company had a settled dynamic – with songs swelling and retreating on the backs of multi-part vocal harmonies, tight drums and bass, and arpeggiated, staccato top-line melodies on guitar and synths. Four songs off the upcoming record were premiered – and received as well as expected by the audience at an early evening show at the 9:30 Club. The band steered clear of performing fan favorites “Two Doves” and “Stillness is the Move” – understandable given the heavy association with aforementioned ex-members – but I was surprised that we didn’t hear “About to Die”, a song that neatly packages all the trademark elements of the Dirty Projectors sound in slightly over four minutes.
It will be interesting to see how Dirty Projectors continues its evolution on the upcoming album, Lamp Lit Prose, due out next month. Longstreth’s talent and legacy as a bridge between indie music and progressive, “post-x” art-rock is firm at this point; what’s up for debate is how he’ll continue his evolution as a songwriter. Dirty Projectors was a moving post-mortem of a relationship that held no punches, but I’ll be curious to see how he completes the uncoupling, sonically and thematically.