Album Review: Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan

[Domino; 2012]

“Art rock” is a term that probably gets thrown around too loosely, but there will be little argument if you apply it to certain groups, whether that be Sonic Youth or, for the majority of their recording career, Dirty Projectors. But the term does not begin to do justice to the musical imagination of Dave Longstreth, who has managed to veer from concept albums revolving around figures as diverse as Don Henley and Black Flag to, on their previous beloved record Bitte Orca, something much more universal, exciting, and never without surprises. The trajectory continues on Swing Lo Magellan, an album with no real concept other than to flex Longstreth’s ability to amaze through complex arrangements, melodies that seem equally foreign and familiar, and lyrics that for the first time can actually strike a chord for even the casual listener. Yeah, it’s really good.

Advanced word on Swing Lo Magellan indicated that something darker than previous Dirty Projectors’ releases might be afoot. And while you could see what Longstreth meant when he indicated this in early interviews for the album, it is a red herring delivered by the album’s first single, “Gun Has No Trigger,” and not really present except for opening number “Offspring Are Blank” and the album’s only throwaway track, “Maybe That Was It.” Otherwise, Swing Lo Magellan is an ideal windows-down, wind-in-your-hair summertime record. Longstreth’s always-present infatuation with dub lends to this, but the song structure, which varies from escalator to elevator (always building to something, you see), strikes the listener with life-affirming joy, the kind that really only makes sense in warm weather and long stretches of sunlight. Hell, Dirty Projectors manage to make a shout of “I’m about to die!” seem glorious (on “About To Die”), a feat in of itself.

It all seems intricately put together and spontaneous, with the handclaps of “Just From Chevron” sounding sloppy enough to not be contrived. But with repeat listens, every guitar riff that can be described as accidentally melodic comes across as expertly purposeful. How Longstreth is able to accomplish this kind of precision while maintaining an effortless feel is still beyond me, but if you can find its equal in contemporary music, I would be surprised.

One criticism you might see of Swing Lo Magellan is that vocalists Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle take a backseat on this record, which is fair in its assessment but hardly a valid criticism. Dirty Projectors are Longstreth’s band and his vocals never really need the help (listen to how they bend so perfectly on “Dance For You”). Still, when the ladies do show up, they only make the song more special. The ladies of Dirty Projectors are the ace in the hole and the fact that they are not overused only makes it more special when they do get to play a larger part, such as on tracks “Just For Chevron” and “The Socialites,” just a couple of the future classics that this album contains.

And, that is what it comes down to. There is so much to both genuinely appreciate and enjoy on Swing Lo Magellan that it makes you wonder why these have to sometimes be exclusive ways to experience an album. A more accessible Dirty Projectos doesn’t take anything away from the complexity and thought that has gone into the affair. “Inpregnable Question” sounds like it could have been written by Sam Cooke, and takes a thought as simple and overplayed as “I need you and you are always on my mind” and turns it into a revelation, as if no one had ever been in love and written about it before. This is not something to brush off, and Longstreth makes it seems easy.

Other highlights include “Unto Caesar,” which is perhaps the loosest song on the album (the band can be heard talking about the song in the background as it is created and it manages to drift easily between lo-fi and hi-fi elements) and “See What She Is Seeing,” which will most easily please fans of Bitte Orca. But, it is hard to imagine fans of the band’s last record finding much not to like on this latest effort, as Swing Lo Magellan is generally celebratory, relishing in life, music, collaboration, and creativity. Dirty Projectors have made an album intimate enough to bring you into the recording studio with them to experience all their idiosyncrasies. But it is also important to stand back and realize that one of our best bands is still on top of their game.