The Dirty Projectors, Swing Lo Magellan
By Wesley Jakacki
July 10, 2012
Simple honesty often goes far beyond any high concept or dramatization ever will. Dave Longstreth, frontman and creative force behind the ever-changing Brooklyn indie rock band Dirty Projectors, has seemingly figured that out on the band’s seventh album, Swing Lo Magellan. Longstreth has never had a shortness of ideas, with the Dirty Projectors being known for albums chock-full of interesting and elaborate concepts, from an entire album of reimagined and reinterpreted Black Flag songs in Rise Above, to a “glitch-opera” about Eagles frontman Don Henley that also tackles ancient mexico, post-9/11 America, and oil in The Getty Address. However, Swing Lo Magellan finally shows Dirty Projectors in the glorious height they have been building towards; a beautifully bombastic yet direct pop record bursting with creative touches around every corner.
On Swing Lo Magellan, Dirty Projectors drew influence primarily from three very different musicians – Neil Young, Lil’ Wayne, and timeless bluesman Blind Willie Johnson. The characteristic that holds these three together is the simple directness and raw emotion heard in their music, and this is ever-apparent on the Projector’s latest. From the get-go, this raw emotion is found on opener “Offspring Are Blank”, a song whose smooth R&B opening turns into full-out guitar rock, with Longstreth’s vocal is as unrefined as its been in quite some time. Longstreth is known as a sort of obsessive dictator in the studio, pining over every last detail, but on Swing Lo Magellan, highlighted on songs like “Offspring Are Blank” and “Just From Chevron”, Longstreth did very few vocal takes on tracks, sometimes even letting the first take be the last. This technique gives Magellan a warmth and openness, removing the calculated, theatrical feel that occasionally plagued past efforts. “Just From Chevron” opens with singer/guitarist and Longstreth’s girlfriend Amber Coffman singing sweetly over a speedy handclapped rhythm, before Longstreth picks up the second verse with some amusing vocal hysterics and his virtuosic guitar play, making for a thrilling finish.
Beside the music of Lil’ Wayne, Blind Willie Johnson, and Neil Young, Swing Lo Magellan has another surprising source for inspiration: the Bible. Longstreth himself always travels with the King James Bible, and while he holds no personal religious beliefs, he finds much beauty and depth about the human psyche in the book. “As a collection of stories, as a collection of characters, tales, the quality of the language is beautiful,” Longstreth told the New York Times last week. The Biblical inspiration can no doubt be heard on Magellan, from the huge ominous language and feel on “Gun Has No Trigger” and “Maybe That Was It” to a nod to Jesus’ quote to the Pharisees in Mark about taxes in “Unto Caesar”, the most liberated-sounding song on the album.
“About To Die” is lyrically also one of the most dramatic song on the album, but in great contrast, the song is the most fun Afro-pop you hear on the entire album. African-infused pop music has gotten its fair share of attention with the rise of bands like Vampire Weekend and Ra Ra Riot, but Dirty Projectors’ use the African influence in a way that is as fluid as anyone and not the least bit imitative. In fact, Vampire Weekend’s frontman Ezra Koenig even got his Afro-pop start as a Dirty Projector, playing saxophone for the band in one of their early incarnations.
Swing Lo Magellan also sports the best ballads Longstreth has written to date, free from some of the over-conceptualization Longstreth has been known for in the past decade, but are instead beautiful, tender songs that beg to be heard. The title track is a sweet stripped-down ballad, replete with a spare electronic drum backbeat, chiming acoustic guitar riff, and Longstreth’s affectionate vocals. “Dance For You” is existential in tone with Longstreth stating “There is an answer/I haven’t found it” but decides in the meantime to sing a tender love song, filled with the stylings of late Beatles baroque pop. “Impregnable Question” floats upon a bed of bass and piano with beautifully sung harmonies finding a couple at a relationship crossroads but unlike most potential breakup songs, “Question” strays on the side of grace and love. Album closer “Irresponsible Tune” sounds like a bedtime ballad pulled straight from the 50s, a growing waltz filled with gospel harmonies and harp-like guitar chords.
If 2009’s Bitte Orca was the band’s announcement to the music world that they are here to stay, Swing Lo Magellan is their acceptance speech into indie rock royalty, being their best effort to date and the best album of 2012 thus far.