Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: In 2002, an Ivy League student recorded a quirky, yet promising album on a four-track in his bedroom. He dropped out of school and moved to Brooklyn to pursue a music career, fueled by the modest buzz surrounding the release.
It’s an archetypal story, but it’s important to remember that all archetypes begin as something original and exciting; a testament to just how influential Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth has been over the past decade.
Swing Lo Magellan, Dirty Projectors’ seventh album, finds the band at a crossroads. Key contributor Angel Deradoorian split, leaving Longstreth with the pressure of releasing the pivotal follow up to an album that has cruise ship-sized shoes to fill, his 2009 breakthrough, Bitte Orca, without his most senior collaborator. The “on the cusp” success of Bitte Orca has primed the tenured Dirty Projectors to “make the leap” to Grammy Award-nominee mainstream acceptance (or recognition, to be more accurate), another increasingly archetypal plot line for indie bands in this day in age. Longstreth’s been at this project for a decade, now. It’s make or break time.
Unsurprisingly, Longstreth does not wilt under the pressure and delivers an absolutely beautiful album. Swing Lo Magellan is unquestionably the Projectors’ most accessible work to date. Longstreth has never sounded so soulful (nor have his backing vocalists, Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle); and his songs have never consistently displayed such conventional structure; the album almost FEELS like a folk album. And that’s not a surprise; Longstreth, who recorded the album in a house in Delaware County, New York (about four hours from here) said that Swing Lo Magellan is “an album of songs, an album of songwriting.” The tone, lyrical content (his most straightforward and emotive yet) and aesthetic draw on the more intimate and simplistic setting in which the songs were crafted and ultimately recorded.
Tracks like Impregnable Question and Gun With No Trigger are straight-forward pop-anthems, the latter possibly the strongest track on the album, an extremely viable lead single, and one of the best of the band’s catalogue.
While Dirty Projectors’ trademark bizarre, almost math-rock leaning time structures are absent on these tracks and many of the others, Swing Lo Magellan takes enough interesting twists and turns to keep any Dirty Projectors fan interested. If the band has any model, it’s experimentation; whether it be their take on 20th-century orchestration on The Getty Address, a re-imagining of a hardcore classic on Rise Above and vocal techniques in Bitte Orca. Swing Lo Magellan is an experiment in intimacy and simplicity.
Opener Offspring Are Blank lulls the listener into a somnambulist bliss with the old Projectors’ tricks; lightly sprinkled percussion and gorgeous harmonies, until an electric guitar crunch and high hat smash forewarn the listener that this is not simply Bitte Orca round two; though a few of the tracks (About To Die, Just from Chevron, The Socialites) would be right at home sandwiched between Stillness Is The Move and Two Doves. Longstreth recalls his more 60’s-psychedelia crazed days with Maybe That Was It, and obscures his voice in reverb on the summery Irresponsible Tune.
While accessibility may read as “safe,” especially given where the Dirty Projectors are in their career; this remains some of their finest work, despite Swing Lo Magellan’s relative simplicity when compared to some of the more experimental work in their discography. Make no mistake; Dirty Projectors remain a challenging band, whose songs require more than a few listens to fully appreciate, regardless of an increasingly realized pop-sensibility. This will ultimately keep them just to the left of the dial in the context of mainstream acceptance; a tier below the Arcade Fires, Bon Ivers and Black Keys of the world. You know. Right where we like them.
Peter Rittweger of My Social List