There’s the potential for a bit of Dirty Projectors overload on the blog over the next few days. We’ve got an album review today and I’ll have a concert recap from their Columbus show (tonight at the Wexner Center) up sometime tomorrow. But embrace the overload: Swing Lo Magellan is worth it.
Dirty Projectors can be tough to follow, it’s true. Their song structures don’t like to conform to what your already-trained ear is accustomed to hearing. Their lyrics have been at least slightly abstract in the past, and they’ve been sung by the idiosyncratic (and seemingly divisive) voice of David Longstreth. Heck, the band have been just plain unlistenable at times (some of their earliest stuff is really hard to sit through, even after multiple tries). Abstraction can be a real pain that way.
Luckily, growth and exploration have led the band into calmer waters. Their 2007 album Rise Above comes across as pretentious on paper (trying to remember and re-interpret a Black Flag album. Yes, really.) but warmer production, prettier singing, and more rational song structures make the result fairly satisfying. Still, this only hinted at the exceptional album to come in the form of Bitte Orca. Dirty Projectors’ 2009 release kept the band in the nebulous indie genre but nudged against other styles. Highlighted by the highly-praised single “Stillness is the Move,” the record explored different rhythmic styles, had more expressive guitars, and even sat at the same table as modern-day R&B. But above all else, the music was clearer and the songs more accessible. That doesn’t mean the compositions were simple (the turns on “Useful Chamber” are quite jarring), but they were satisfying in a way that prior efforts were not.
So it was with great anticipation that follow-up record Swing Lo Magellan came out this week. Thankfully, the band has kept up both their idiosyncratic style and their recent push toward accessible music. But what makes this record so much more enjoyable isn’t just the songwriting (although that is certainly worthwhile, but more on that later), it’s the emotion and humanity that exude from nearly every song. That may raise an eyebrow (and honestly sounds a bit silly in a vacuum), but the tracks are easier to latch onto and stick with thanks to the very personal works of Longstreth.
The human element comes at you in different ways. Cries of desperation come at you in “About to Die” as dissonant strings and strained vocals hit an emphatic crescendo and the song sits just a few beats away from completely falling apart. A restrained instrumental performance serves as a complementary backdrop to the emphatic (and lyrically shocking) lead single “Gun Has No Trigger.” They’re both musically desolate and lyrically stirring.
Cruel irony and fantastic storytelling highlight “Just from Chevron,” a track that features the fictional last remarks of an oil-worker dying from an industrial accident. Among his last words are the biting remark, “Whatever the people will drive, I swear I will survive.” With bookend narration from the band’s female singers, it’s at once heartbreaking and mystifying. It’s hard to ignore the tale, a rich four minutes of reflection. Combined with fluid, expressive guitars and drums that pop in the main section, the song is engrossing.
But the warm, beating core of the record lies in the songs “Dance for You” and “Impregnable Question.” The former builds as the singer chronicles his search for “an answer” that he hasn’t found. The final quarter of the song completely opens up as the solitary guitar builds, strings begin to play, and Longstreth concludes that he will keep dancing, “dance for you,” he intones with every ounce of earnest sorrow and heart he can muster.
The piano-based song “Impregnable Question” is much more direct in its pleas and its relatively simple composition streamlines the effect. Desperately, Longstreth sings to a lover “I need you, and you’re always on my mind.” He ups the ante in the final verse, reciting wedding-esque vows before concluding and repeating “You’re my love, and I want you in my life.” It’s like the conclusion to the bare desperation of Spoon’s “Black Like Me,” the singer has found someone to confide in and is holding on.
Of course, all this heart and feeling is hard to grasp without excellent musical compositions. Swing Lo Magellan isn’t as fast and loose as Bitte Orca but it still features structures and style that leave the ear a bit out of whack on first listen. But stick with it: the strange phrasing and instruments of the “Unto Caesar” refrain eventually morph from an out-of-place blaring to a euphoric sonic release. Other songs are similar “Offspring are Blank” has a bit of a Led Zeppelin feel and the loud guitar bits can catch you off guard, but it fits in just fine with the rest of the record. Even the aforementioned “Just from Chevron” takes some time to digest with final thoughts of the main character surrounded by opening and closing narration (a close listen unravels the details and it makes more sense). These things make Magellan a Dirty Projectors record, but they’re accomplished with ease and grace. Nothing seems unnecessarily forced for the sake of complexity, and you never lose the sense of direction within each song.
Swing Lo Magellan is easier to latch onto thanks to the emotion, but make no mistake: the human resonance is also the reward. Instruments are pushed to make the maximum impact, lyrics are carefully crafted for meaning, and the vocal delivery is outstanding. Many have (rightfully) praised Dirty Projectors’ last record, but I’d argue that this one is even better. It lacks a single breakthrough track on the order of “Stillness is the Move,” but is a more impressive whole album, one that I haven’t been able to put down since preview streams started a week ago. Give it a shot, and hopefully you’ll be pulled in by the band too.