Amber Coffman – City of No Reply

1 December 2020 / by Zahraa Hmood
Album Image for Amber Coffman - City of No Reply (Released 2017-06-02  by Columbia)

You’re forgiven if you can’t ignore the drama of it all: this year gave us two break-up records from a couple who used to work together in one of the most influential indie rock bands of this generation. City of No Reply, out June 2, is Amber Coffman’s debut solo album since leaving Brooklyn band Dirty Projectors, and with it, boyfriend David Longstreth.


Early 2017, Longstreth, the sole remaining member of the band, released Dirty Projectors’ eighth self-titled album, a discordant, bitter, but energized break-up record (and one of my personal favourites of this year). But before this record came his and Coffman’s collaboration on City of No Reply, a reconnection following their breakup in 2012.


Longstreth played a significant hand in the making of this record. All the songs are co-credited to Coffman and Longstreth, along with a few other writers. Between the recording of the album in 2014 and now, however, their friendship took what Coffman called an “unfortunate downturn.” It’s uncertain where they are at right now, but Coffman said at the time they were not on speaking terms.


Coffman’s latest work, City of No Reply, in many respects, follows in suite with the theme of breakups. However, let’s step away from the drama for a moment. You may listen to the record, trying to hear hints of this Longstreth-Coffman tension. However, I think it’s important to try listening for Coffman herself, because there’s more to be found on this record alongside love and relationships.


She weaves tales of desire, isolation, and the search for happiness. She takes us on a long walk to through the Austin desert, her birthplace. We’re often caught between day and night, trying to find the ocean, wrestling with the horror of being truly and utterly alone, but in the end, coming to be content with it. The result is this beautiful, odyssey-esque body of work.


We’re welcomed into the record with a sweet and sad embrace, in the form of the two tracks “Ally By Myself” and “No Coffee,” almost certain to be timeless sing-along indie favourites. The first is what Coffman called a “pep-talk song,” slowly rocking you in its melancholy doo-wop beat and synthetic humming. Then comes “No Coffee,” with its cheerful acoustic guitar on the chorus setting off its wistful lyrics “Don’t need no coffee, I’m wide awake / I’m not much for sleeping when your love is at stake / I go out walking, I don’t know what to do / Cause I can’t think about anything but you, oh.” As you’ll soon discover, Coffman’s voice is a consistent highlight of this album: it’s elegant, clear, and doesn’t completely demand to be heard while capturing your entire imagination regardless.


Where this album becomes worth more than a single listen, I feel, is where it takes more off-kilter approaches in instrumentation to set off it’s, perhaps, sappier lyrics. The third song, “Dark Night,” is where this begins. It features this strolling type-beat with deep synths, punctuated by subtle organ cords. The ending is a fun climax of eclectic percussion and harmonization. Then comes the title track, “City of No Reply,” one of the album’s emotional highlights, with beautiful delivery on the chorus: “Run, run away / You don’t wanna watch me cry / Oh, to live and die / In the city of no reply.” Again, things are kept from the monotony with an instrumental swtich-up on the bridge with a pew-pew-pew synth beat, organ, and trotting tabla.


In saying that the latest Dirty Projectors’ record has bitterness was not to position this record as sugary sweet in emotion all throughout. At first, we have the track “Miss You,” giving you the sense of a quiet but restless night, with a cool bass guitar and quick, pattering drum beat as Coffman carries us through the song, wistfully delivering lyric by lyric. With the track “Do You Believe,” however, we begin to hear the emotion of regret. It features gorgeous harmonies and romantic but mournful instrumentation, as Coffman sings, “How’s playing it safe working out for you?” in a round of harmonies, building into an immense chorus, gone as quickly as it came.


To re-emphasize the eclectic elements of this record, the next two tracks are kind of my favourite. “If You Want My Heart” is about demands and desire, and has this off-beat percussion cutting through her confessional delivery. Coffman shows off range, harmonies, control, and layering through what is the most vocally-emphasized track on the record. We’re carried into this huge build-up in the bridge that sits in your chest even as it disappears for the final chorus, with swirling electronic elements and disturbances.


“Nobody Knows” is my favourite song on the record. It has the boldest vocal delivery, as Coffman goes into her higher register and almost yells the lyrics, delivering beautiful melismas as she sings, “And when the wind blows / I just wanna blow away / I wanna say / Goodbye to today.” It features this staccato keyboard matched with a synth beat and off-signature drumming: it’s the rhythm of frustration.


It’s at this point that we see something of an emotional tug-and-pull. “Under the Sun” feels like optimism and being baked under the heat with fuzzy guitar licks and lyrics like “Love and music keeps me happy.” But then comes the most somber sound on the record, “Brand New.” It has this light, jazzy drumming and moody piano, but features these disturbing audio cut-ups, interrupting the message from getting across. There’s regret and hurt written all over this, and bleak lyrics like “Your memory can’t fade fast enough for what you did to me.”


We’re brought to a peaceful and satisfying end with “Kindness.” You hear an organ reminiscent of something you’d hear in a 1960s rock ballad. This is accompanied by a drum beat and hi-hat, travelling at a good, steady pace. The lyrics Coffman sings are of life carrying on, of carrying no ill will, of acceptance: “May summer rain set you at ease / May winds of change help calm your seas / And may blue features fall to you from up above / And may you always know you are loved.” In the end, you hear the sound of waves crashing: she’s finally left the city, and found her way to the ocean.


Start with “No Coffee” and “City of No Reply” for tracks you’re going to be singing to yourself for weeks to come. Follow with “If You Want My Heart” and “Nobody Knows” to appreciate some great vocals. Then “Brand New” for a complex, brilliantly-produced track.