Dirty Projectors — “Up in Hudson”
The first great song of 2017
One of the first things you hear when you play “Up in Hudson,” the lead single from the Dirty Projectors’ forthcoming album, is an angelic chorus of dadum da’s, sublimely layered yet portentous.
(Actually, the song, which references Kanye West toward the end, begins with an instance of the “chipmunk soul” the Chicago rapper/producer was most known for early in his career. But the sample gives way to the music fairly early on.)
I say “portentous” because this is David Longstreth, after all. Which means a musical instance of beauty — even one as spellbindingly pure as on the intro to “Up in Hudson” — cannot be trusted to remain that way.
Longstreth has acute pop sensibilities, but he’s too musically expansive, too creative to passively embrace the genre’s conventions.
The promise of experimental pop is that by deconstructing the standard template an artist can arrive at something more significant, “something awkward but new,” as Longstreth sings on “Up in Hudson.”
And the paradox at the heart of experimental pop is that, contra Thom Yorke, everything’s not in its right place, yet it somehow comes to seem as though it all is.
At the album level, Radiohead’s Kid A, from which “Everything In Its Right Place” comes, is an examplar of this. Challenging, but infinitely hypnotic. A song everyone’s familiar with that I’d place in this tradition is the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” whereas a more recent example would be Animal Collective’s “My Girls.” Ask yourself this: does anyone think a more straightforward rendition of “My Girls,” one stripped of its unconventional aspects, would be more musically satisfying?
But “Up in Hudson” is not challenging.
In fact it’s significantly more accessible than the rest of Dirty Projectors’ catalog. For example, “Keep Your Name,” another fantastic track from the upcoming Dirty Projectors, inexplicably contains a musical digression toward the midpoint of the track that nearly ruins everything. “Up in Hudson,” by contrast, contains no artistic disruptions, no odd tricks or irregularities. The drums are unique, sure, but there’s nothing about them that challenges.
I kept waiting for the artistic upheaval, the interruption of joy, but it never came. Longstreth’s ear for melody, the perfectly placed background vocals, his own vocal inflections, the gorgeous horns — it all comes together beautifully. A 7-and-a-half minute, breathtakingly beautiful arrangement whose only jarring moment comes from Longstreth’s lyrics: the juxtaposition of the wide-eyed wonder of new love alongside the feeling of interminable bleakness when it later fades away.
We get this:
We talked for like two minutes
But I had a feeling
Something awkward but new between us
Something strong and appealing
And we both had girl and boyfriends blowing us up SMS
But we both knew a mood like this so strong would be wrong to suppress
Felt like it bore the impress of destiny
In a minivan in New England, our eyes met
We said yes and we said yes
Right next to this:
Love will burn out
Love will just fade away
It gets even bleaker as the song goes on:
And love will burn out
And love will just fade away
And love’s gonna rot
And love will just dissipate
It’s not “I Know It’s Over” by the Smiths, the despondency here is not overpowering, but “Up in Hudson” certainly reckons with the way a break up can fracture a person.
The reference is to former Dirty Projectors band member Amber Coffman, who is a musical talent in her own right. See “Stillness is the Move,” which is referenced in “Up in Hudson”:
And see the incredible “Get Free”:
This is how Domino Records, the band’s label, describes “Up in Hudson”:
The new Dirty Projectors song ‘Up In Hudson’ is an elegy — to the Obama years, to a generation of indie rock, and to a relationship. Over the course of nine verses and almost eight minutes, the lyrics situate David Longstreth & his band in the vivid textures of the recent past like a millennial Blood On The Tracks. It is a piece of epic storytelling unlike anything else in Dirty Projectors’ discography.
The Domino press release plays up the song’s mood, exclusively focusing on the lyrics. There’s no reference to the music in this description. The nod to Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks refers to a thematic link between the two, not a musical one.
But it’s the music that matters most. And musically, “Up in Hudson” is enchanting.