Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
So many aspects of the new Dirty Projectors album, like any of those before it, can be described with sentences that begin with “It’s like…” and end with “…but weird”. Between Dave Longstreth’s flexible cadence and the layers of dense vocal harmonies they’ve been a band with “a sound” for a long time and sixth full-length Swing Lo Magellan still doesn’t come across like the work of anyone else.
It’s less ornate than the last couple of records they’ve put out, but covers the same shades of freak folk that one might expect. There’s a brooding, noir-ish quality to the verses of first single ‘Gun Has No Trigger’ and opener ‘Offspring Are Blank’. It’s a loose darkness that permeates only some of the record but fits like a glove. Both tracks explode into typical, but no less gorgeous, rainbow choruses, the former presenting Dirty Projectors’ capacity for instantly appealing pop hooks and climactic ascending vocal harmonies, while the latter offers three different versions of a guitar-rock sunshine refrain.
The earnest ballad ‘Impregnable Question’ is the warm heart underneath the more bizarre tendencies and obscure lyrics of the band, reflecting on what does and does not come to pass, relationship differences and the presence of affection through thick and thin.
There are leftfield turns on Swing Lo Magellan that prove the band’s continuing knack for sending tracks in unexpected directions. ‘About to Die’s bridge throws strings into the mix, meandering but directed into line by crisp percussion, while Longstreth weaves his melody over the top. The dramatic guitar lead in ‘Maybe That Was It’ crawls over an indecisive rhythm, falling into place with a realisation and shifting out with a doubt. It sounds absurd but the track is both revelatory and unwilling to commit.
Dirty Projectors intended Swing Lo Magellan to be an album of songs and though this holds true there are moments that lean more heavily on the pop experimentation side of their work that might have benefited from either more embellishment or more focus on songwriting itself. ‘The Socialites’ or ‘See What She Seeing’ for example wouldn’t have lost anything if they had the elaborate treatment of a track from Bitte Orca.
But the vocal interplay between Longstreth and Amber Coffman is as strong as ever on ‘Unto Caesar’, their capacity for grandeur intact on ‘Gun Has No Trigger’ and their simplicity as vital on the acoustic title track. Someone could argue that Dirty Projectors wrote songs before and there wasn’t a need to self-consciously present the album in its stripped down form, but the writing remains sharp and the balance with their weirder tendencies is masterfully fine-tuned for the most part.
Like Bitte Orca before it Swing Lo Magellan is likely to broaden Dirty Projectors’ audience though not a great deal has been compromised. Even if there is a slight trade-off in favour of songwriting against the band’s more esoteric tendencies the balance works most of the time and the record is another solid and cohesive offering from one of the more consistent and consistently strange indie pop acts of the last decade.