The cover of Amber Coffman’s debut solo record features a blooming desert scene beneath a picture of her, partially obscured by a dark night to her left and backgrounded by a cloudy but promising expanse on her right. The picture feels like an apt presentation of its interior: City of No Reply is a snapshot of an artist caught in transition between her past as a guitarist in Dirty Projectors and her present as a standalone artist, kept in balance by a grounded attitude that is at times bright and floral, at others conflicted and spiny. “All to Myself,” the album’s opener and thematic calling card, seems to keep this promise of speaking out in a voice that merges these two worlds. Coffman’s introspective resolutions (“All I want is to feel strong / well, I know who I can count on”) glow with her distinct harmonies while still carrying along speckles of Projector-isms (robotic humming, crunching drums, and background vocals from fellow ex-members Haley Dekle and Angel Deradoorian).
What becomes so vexing about City of No Reply on the whole is, unfortunately, connected to the very issue Coffman wishes listeners to distance themselves from thinking about. The record’s production was infamously handled by David Longstreth, the last-standing Dirty Projector and Coffman’s ex-boyfriend. In the intervening time between 2012’s Swing Lo Magellan—the last DPs record Coffman appeared on—and now, Longstreth’s tastes have slid further from geometric, guitar-starring rock and folk to fragmented, asymmetrical electronic beats. While Coffman began writing the record six years ago, well before bringing him on as producer, it’s hard not to hear Longstreth’s heavy hand guiding Coffman’s ‘70s-flavored pop out of its golden-hour glow and into his comfort zone. While going all in on synthetically warped alt-R&B experiments ended up intensifying Dirty Projectors’ manic, unrepentantly revealing soliloquy, his watered-down application of the style here shoves City onto a sonic competition with projects like Galimatias & Alina Baraz’s Urban Flora.
Despite the insistence of its arrangements, Hoffman’s album succeeds the most when it stays above that fray. “Dark Night”—one of the many moments where psycho-tropical elements sprout up on the record—is a gelatinous concoction of synthesizer strings, steel drums and a fuzzy bassline so alarming it can rumble teacups off tables. The album’s title track sounds like forcing every friend group’s coolest members to socialize: a mournful string intro is interrupted by a mellow salsa groove, broken up by the occasional sizzling organ sting. Coffman’s up-strummed guitar, truly the heartbeat of the song, has to fight to not be crowded out.
The songs that soar the highest are the ones that give Coffman’s composed voice enough space to display her vocal connection to the girl groups of the ‘60s. “No Coffee” is an unbelievably catchy piece of flower-child soul that dances in the face of an uncertain relationship. “Under the Sun” finds Coffman at both her most breezy and self-assured, and one of the few tracks to perfectly triangulate her talents as a singer, guitarist and songwriter. And though the down-pitched vocoder on several tracks doesn’t so much sound layered over the singers’ voices as it does coated inside their throats, it ends up reinforcing the disappointment and darkness beneath the cloudlike horns and piano glissandos of “Do You Believe.”
There is plenty to celebrate and admire about City of No Reply. Coffman’s pristine crooning fans the embers just enough to draw you in closer, and it takes no effort whatsoever to find an immense, relatable comfort in her lyrical coyness. The most frustrating letdown is not the quality of the songs themselves, but how they are unavoidably ensnared by production choices so at odds with their roots. Its statements of independence are the ones that shine through the loudest and build anticipation for Coffman’s next release, when the sound of her former band is no longer half-draped around her shoulders.