From the start of their career, Dirty Projectors have always had flashes of greatness, but there was a time when any sort of success for the band on a large scale seemed out of the question. They were just too willfully obscure for that sort of thing. And yet, lo and behold six albums into their career, the breakthrough came. With Bitte Orca, the band let just enough accessibility into their thorny mix to find a much wider audience. That newfound accessibility unsurprisingly translated into something more enjoyable on a whole, offering a nice counterpoint to frontman Dave Longstreth’s elaborate and sometimes difficult approach to songwriting. The band seems to be taking this approach one step further on the new Swing Lo Magellan. In a recent Pitchfork interview, Longstreth explained that this time around he has focused more on songs than arrangements, and in turn the album feels like a natural progression from Bitte Orca and the results are similarly stunning.
Swing Lo Magellan immediately announces Dirty Projectors’ shift in priorities; opening with little more than rhythmic sounds — including handclaps — and Longstreth backed by some gorgeous “oohs” from Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle, “Offspring Are Blank” is a warning gong for what’s to follow. It’s one of several tracks on the record featuring a hauntingly spare arrangement. And even still, as the song picks up at the chorus, the band provides the sort of climax at which they have historically excelled. In comparison to their older work however, even that of the comparatively poppy Bitte Orca, the band’s work here feels positively unfussy. The ingredients of “Gun Has No Trigger” never move beyond a spare drum beat, a Motown-infused bass line, a consistent flow of Coffman and Dekle’s “oohs” and Longstreth’s impassioned voice and it’s one of the most powerful songs I’ve heard all year. It’s certainly to the band’s credit that they are able to take such a sparse, largely unwavering arrangement and still squeeze a compelling build up out of it.
You’re unlikely to hear another album this year that plays with dynamics to such a masterful effect. Although much of it is fairly stark, moments of lushness creep in at just the right places, only to duck out as quickly as they come. The results are often undeniably captivating. Likewise, the band knows when to mix things up with a loud, distorted gem, temper the mood with an R&B piano ballad a la “Impregnable Question” or throw in an intricate, rhythmically complex curveball like “See What She Seeing.”
On a similar note, the album does an excellent job of balancing several complicated feelings, veering between bleak declarations, gorgeous love songs and utter playfulness in a manner where each tone touched upon enhances the greater whole. On the Lennon-esque closer “Irresponsible Tune,” Longstreth laments that, “without songs we’re lost and life is pointless, harsh and long.” Elsewhere he feels “lonely and forgotten in the frozen world,” and even the gentle, beautiful “Just From Chevron” revolves around an oil spill. The picture is often grim, but never without hope. In “Dance for You” he explains, “I want to feel the breath of a force I cannot explain,” but he’s going to keep dancing until he finds answers. These dark themes are always expertly assuaged with lighter moments. “Unto Caesar” for one, features Coffman asking “when should we bust into harmonies?”, along with random bits of laughter, a “whoo” cheered in the background and an overall spiritedness that brings the song to life.
Swing Lo Magellan shows that as the band strips down and rethinks their MO, they’re continuing to make their work more palatable. Even tracks that are bit harder to follow at first, like “The Socialites” or “Maybe That Was It,” reveal themselves over time. This is a band that I once claimed was easier to admire than to really enjoy (and there was plenty about them to admire). That all, of course, changed with the magnificent Bitte Orca and with Swing Lo Magellan, Dirty Projectors seem bent on continuing to dispel the myth I was perpetuating. It’s not at all hard to enjoy such a creative band seemingly at the peak of their powers.