Amber Coffman isn’t afraid of contradiction. “I’m a Gemini,” she says, “and there’s a lot of that duality in me.” She’s extroverted and introverted. She’s positive and negative. She even feels ambivalent about how seriously to take astrology (for the record, she takes it “with a grain of salt”). So it’s no surprise that Coffman’s debut solo LP, City of No Reply, traffics in contrasts. Here is an album with the glassy reflective feeling of falling in love, and one that speaks intimately of pain, of heartbreak, and of the struggle to find one’s identity. From the first line of the first track, Coffman wages a two-front campaign: to both stake out who she is and overcome her messy public past.
For most of her life as a professional musician, Coffman was defined by the company she kept. “I think when I was younger there was a part of me that wanted to sort of prove that I could keep up playing guitar with people that I admired and respected,” she says. For almost a decade those people were the Dirty Projectors, the esoteric ur–Brooklyn band led by her then-boyfriend Dave Longstreth, with Coffman on guitar and vocals. The two broke up in 2012 after a six-year relationship but remained on amicable enough terms for Longstreth to work as a producer on City of No Reply. Until last fall, that is, when all niceties were cast aside.
A large outfit that has embraced a revolving-door policy — a list of past members numbers in the dozens — Dirty Projectors always centered on Longstreth, but Coffman’s vocals helped define the band’s distinctive style. Then last September, Coffman discovered that Longstreth had recorded a new album under the name — one that placed their former relationship front and center. This all came as a surprise to Coffman, and City of No Reply, despite Longstreth’s involvement, is riddled with references to a love affair gone sour. Loaded lyrics like “I woke up from a nightmare/Everyone I know disappeared/And like I knew along/I did not belong,” from “Nobody Knows,” permeate the work.
While the album is Coffman’s moment to stake out her individuality, it’s also a breakup record, and the unavoidable reality is that Longstreth tried to beat her to it. When he released “Keep Your Name” in September 2016, the first cut from the first Dirty Projectors album without Coffman, Longstreth leveled “Ether”-worthy digs like “What I want from art is truth/What you want is fame” over a looped sample from a love-song duet the pair had once performed. The forthright nature of the track tipped Coffman from outward ambivalence to an acknowledgment of their messy split. In a statement, she addressed both the breakup and her surprise at seeing the band move on without her. “I consider it a loss to no longer be involved with Dirty Projectors,” she wrote. “But ultimately walking away was the only healthy choice for me.”
On “All to Myself,” the first cut from City of No Reply, Coffman appears to respond to Longstreth: “I’ve got to sing it out, sing it all to myself/There’s no one to run to.” But the song scans less as a reckoning with past hurt than a declaration of independence.
“Since I had a good decade of working with other people, and on other people’s projects, and not so focused on my own things, I had a long time to marinate on what I wanted to do,” Coffman says today. “I didn’t want to pull back or doubt myself too much or censor myself too much.” The songs are all new, written in the past three years, but the emotions that drive them go back much further, permitting her to transform a diary-like specificity into broader truths regarding fragility and fear — to locate, within something so personal, a universality.
“I allowed myself to sort of listen to the little girl in me,” Coffman says. “It might be a little earnest or cheesy or something. But it’s real.” When she looks closely at her own lyrics, at lines like “There’s a voice inside of me/And it’s time to listen,” Coffman hears elements of favorites from her childhood. “It makes me think of songs that I really loved growing up, like ‘Hero’ by Mariah Carey,” she says, referring to the 1993 ode to self-worth and inner strength. It’s a fitting comparison: City of No Reply is a narrative of accomplishment, of overcoming.
Coffman is at her best when she leans into that earnestness. “I did want there to be some [upbeat] elements, for sure,” she says. “I wasn’t trying to make a somber album about depression.” What City of No Reply does instead is confront disappointment, loneliness, and angst without letting those emotions win. These were songs, Coffman says, that “helped her through difficult moments,” whose creation wasn’t meant to analyze (and thereby wallow in) those feelings, but to move on from them.
The standout, in the final accounting, is “Nobody Knows,” its bright, airy vocals offering a counterpoint to lyrics about sadness and isolation. “Nobody sees my soul/And when the wind blows, I just wanna blow away,” Coffman sings. That she doesn’t — that she stays anchored no matter how hard the wind blows around her, resisting the tempest, resolute — is her album’s great triumph.