Premature Evaluation: Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
Dirty Projectors’ Swing Lo Magellan is officially released next week, though the band’s streaming the record in its entirety, right now, over at NYTimes. This is great news. Open a tab, press play, let’s discuss. For those who’ve been following along, this is one of the year’s most anticipated records. For those new to the conversation, there’s never been a better time to join. Swing Lo is the first full-length in three years from a band that prides itself on shifting conceits between albums. We left off in 2009 with the great Bitte Orca, a relatively accessible breakthrough for an often obtuse outfit that employed innovative arrangement techniques to critical delight. Vocals ricocheted around the room, guitars echoed Zeppelin, hardcore, and soukous, beats were steeped in contemporary R&B and new millinneal experimentalism, all to alchemically inviting ends. Magellan’s big leap shifts focus from those arrangement elements, landing the band in the even more accessible, intimate, and direct realm of basic song form. If Bitte Orca was the moment when Dirty Projectors learned to wear their hearts on their sleeves, Swing Lo Magellan showcases its leader learning how to better tailor the outfit. Meet David Longstreth: Earnest songwriter.
While Magellan ratchets up Bitte’s inviting accessibility, it is not really an extension of that record. (If anything, that was done by Longstreth’s suite of songs for/with Björk, Mount Wittenberg Orca, which he excellently called Bitte’s “younger, hotter sister.”) Dirty Projectors have always been, and continue to be here, a shape-shifting project — due in part to a revolving cast of musicians orbiting around its central star in David Longstreth, and in part to their leader’s clear intent to evolve aesthetically between records. In fact, more than evolution, Dirty Projectors’ movements operate as reaction: Taking stock of their last step and moving in a dramatically different direction. The personnel is different this time due to Angel Deradoorian’s hiatus (her duties are absorbed here by returning vocalists Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle, and fulfilled in live settings so far by Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner), and the substitution of drummer Brian McOmber by Mike Johnson. (Nat Baldwin’s back, too, which is a good thing.)
In terms of aesthetic, you could project a lot from their first single, “Gun Has No Trigger.” That the feverish “Trigger” swells and sells itself on the back of powerful vocal harmonies from the band’s female faction is not a particularly new look. But the spacious sonic palette, the lack of guitar occupying the middle frequency, the fat backbeat, and the simple arrangement kept the focus squarely on song and lyric. These are significant facts in the context of Magellan, which is an album committed to songcraft on a track-by-track basis more than any prevailing narrative or conceit. (And a commitment to beats.) The singer-songwriter mold highlights Longstreth’s intimate and personal lyrics throughout. It’s unclear if he’s playing the role of autobiographer or storyteller, though that’s not important as his songs’ emotional bent. “Just From Chevron” is a touching story set against the backdrop of an oil spill; “Impregnable Question” is a straightforward love song about real love, the sort with dimension, where people disagree and accept and need each other anyway; “Dance For You” takes “dance” and hoists it to metaphorical heights of spiritual and existential yearning. The Vedas do this, too; the fun with Dirty Projectors is knowing they could actually be making that intentional, lofty reference … or they could have been thinking of, like, Beyoncé and “Dance For You.” That track’s optimistic, ear-worming existentialism dovetails into the loping, electrified “Maybe That Was It,” and philosophy majors should take note that this as triumphant an ontological track sequencing as you’ll hear all year.
No, there is nothing as breakout summer-jam worthy as “Stillness Is The Move,” but still, album highlights abound. This time Amber Coffman’s star turn comes via the gorgeous, social values-meditation “The Socialites,” a plaintive and pretty tune cut of the same cloth as, though more complicated than, Bitte’s Deradoorian-tune “Two Doves”. The record’s opener “Offspring Are Blank” is a powerful kick to the chest, exploding into brash rock and opening with Longstreth clearing his throat. In fact, that’s what opens the whole record, and that’s fitting: Dave is more stronger and assured as a rock singer, but also just as a voice in general. The most majestic and symbolic moments come compliments of “Maybe That Was It” and, at the heart of the album, “See What She’s Seeing,” which functions as a showcase for the record’s styles in the same manner “Useful Chamber” did last time. In “Seeing” we hear scurrying electronic beats, striking string and vocal arrangements, and ecstatic lyrics that crest with each “Yeah!”
This much is true: This song, and that “Yeah” thing he’s doing, performed in front of a respectfully quiet audience will be a showstopper. Even truer: What makes Magellan special is not just that this experimental band has made such a successful foray into more orthodox forms, but that they’ve done so without losing the experience and identity developed over years of exploration. The record elegantly encapsulates many of the Projectors’ past triumphs: There’s the “in the room” production feel, a crackling warmth and resonance they captured with Björk on Wittenberg; there’s copious moments of beautiful strings and orchestration a la Getty Address; there are weird New Attitude beats; there are those vocal harmonies, which don’t hocket like Bitte but still propel many of the album’s best moments. The arrangements aren’t the focus, the abstraction is not at the fore — but they do occupy the periphery in a casual yet critical way that elevates the entire production and skews it as something fresh and new while trading in traditionalist tropes.
Later this year, Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear also will release follow-ups to beloved albums released in 2009. Whether or not there is an actual sense of community amongst them, it’s understandable why us media-types, with reductive tendencies and an addiction to easy narrative, would group them together — temporally, geographically, aesthetically. If any bands in this cluster dislike the association, they’ve done themselves no favors but picking the same year to return -and the other two did themselves no favors by letting Dirty Projectors step up first: 2012’s opening salvo, Swing Lo Magellan, is an exceptional record.
Swing Lo Magellan is out 7/10 via Domino. Please note that the band will be live-streaming their show from Music Hall Of Williamsburg on 7/9, at which time we can all judge my prediction about “See What She’s Seeing” together. Also on the way, a film directed by Longstreth entitled Hi Custodian, presumably after a lyric in “Unto Caesar”. Watch the new trailer below: