Photo credit: Bobby Bukowski / Rob Carmichael
Will Schube dresses well enough, thank you.
In 2007, the Dirty Projectors were an enthralling cover band, re-arranging Black Flag’s Damaged into a flutter of gorgeous harmonies and psychedelic freakouts. It was also the first time Dirty Projectors was less a Dave Longstreth solo project than a full band experience. Having this band seemingly allowed Longstreth to get out of his own mind just enough to create something truly collaborative and great. Then they dropped the hammer. 2009’s Bitte Orca was the best album released that year, and there hasn’t been a rock effort since that’s come close to touching it. It’s nearly flawless. Longstreth handles the songwriting but delegates performances in perfect ways. His (then?) girlfriend Amber Coffman sang on the acid-tinged R&B jam “Stillness is the Move,” while other female vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Angel Deradoorian led the way on the idyllic “Two Doves.” Deradoorian quit the band before they released Swing Lo Magellan in 2012, and the band is weaker without her presence.
Swing Lo is a fine album. It’s rock lite, a stripped and ramshackle record that could be four songs shorter than it ended up being. On Bitte Orca, Longstreth used everything at his disposal to create an album of certifiable genius. On Swing Lo, he was given a toolkit with a big piece of white tape across the front reading, “GENIUS” and then told to make something with it. This is when the critical contortions began, trying to fit the Projectors back into the box they were stuffed in with Bitte Orca.
Swing Lo became “a step forward” when it was really a step back. Longstreth was “finding a new sound” when all this really ending up being was a not that great album by a band whose last two records were unequivocally fantastic—the latter perhaps an all-time great. Swing Lo has some tremendous moments: Opener “Offspring Are Blank” captures some of Bitte’s manic energy, while “Impregnable Question” is an absolutely gorgeous ballad. And if we are to believe Kanye and Pablo and view The Album as a living, breathing thing, the life and love affirming joy of “Impregnable Question” is now squashed forever.
On new single “Keep Your Name,” Longstreth eliminates pretty much everything that made the Projectors great. The song is his to carry, and he chooses to do so in pitched down vocals that sludge along mercilessly—how did not one single person tell him this didn’t sound good? But this is far from just another bad song by a white dude doing lamentation R&B. Longstreth samples his own work, taking the core sentiment of “Impregnable Question:” “We don’t see eye to eye.” On “Question,” that line was followed by “But I need you, and you’re always on my mind.”
That sacrifice is now a point of contention, and a catalyst in Longstreth’s seeming breakup with Coffman. As your favorite college professor likely taught you, authorial intention is sticky and dangerous—a not-always worthwhile exercise in the meaning of a work. But “Keep Your Name” is so flagrantly about a bad breakup, that for this thing to exist as a Longstreth solo track, with an accompanying video of him drawing poop emojis (among other things), leads to some questions. There’s no way Longstreth didn’t understand this before the song’s release, either.
It’s also possible to imagine that Longstreth became sick of everyone talking about him and his girlfriend, so this whole thing is a hoax…A piece of performance art. But I have a feeling these sorts of questions—and my wild conspiracy theories—would disappear if the song was any good. People tend to shut up when the music makes sense. For now, these half-truths and conjectures a way to distract yourself from the fact that your once-favorite band’s new single is a solo affair with a minute and a half of rapping. It’s truly awful. It’s a track from an oft-genius, painfully aware of how sharp and subversive he can be. On “Keep Your Name,” Longstreth’s problem is that he and his lover no longer see eye to eye and he can’t look past that. Neither can we.