Dirty Projectors ‘Swing Lo’ but aim high on new album

Ajay Nadig (2013)/ Staff Writer

I’ve listened to Swing Lo Magellan all the way through several times.  Sitting in bed, eyes closed.  Walking down crowded streets.  Walking my dog at night in my neighborhood.   And I never get tired of it.  It kind of brings me back to Bitte Orca, which I listened to nonstop for about 8 months.  No exaggeration—Orca is one of my favorite albums of all time.  And that got me thinking about what it is that makes David Longstreth’s music so infectious, so stellar, so deep.

Most of the Dirty Projectors’ music is pretty similar: relatively standard guitar riffs, swooning female background vocals, liberal bass suspensions and Longstreth’s slightly out of time crooning voice.

Bitte Orca caught my attention with the angelic female three part harmonies.  Swing Lo Magellan is significantly less nebulous, bright, and chirpy (possibly due to the missing third voice, Angel Deradoorian, an absence that Longstreth attributed to the “first big relationship of her life”).  And beyond that, it seems to be a little more concrete: Bitte Orca moves from texture to texture, to the point where lyrics and even melody step back from the forefront. This is where people who call Swing Lo Magellan a “more accessible” album find evidence: the songs on this album appear to be a little more standard, a little bit closer to “pop” than “experimental”.

And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Concretizing lyrics makes me recognize Longstreth’s songwriting prowess on a level that I hadn’t on Bitte Orca.  The opening tune “Offspring Are Blank” stunned me.  The lyric “She was made to love him” echoes behind two different environments: a gentle acoustic guitar and a raucous electric guitar and drums.  I found two meanings in these lyrics: a romantic statement of destiny when accompanied by acoustic guitar, i.e. she is destined to love him, and a dreary statement of forced love when accompanied by tumultuous electric guitar, i.e. she was forced to love him.  And I listened to this 10 times, stunned by the creativity, intentional or not.

“Swing Lo Magellan” and “Just from Chevron” appeal to me in the same way that Bitte Orca did; I feel that, with a little modification, they would feel right at home on the Dirty Projector’s last record.  This is what I expected from the album.  But what I didn’t expect was to like songs that are distinctly Swing Lo Magellan.  My two favorite songs from the record, “About to Die” and “Gun Has No Trigger”, would be out of place on Bitte Orca, or any other record for that matter.   On “About to Die”, Longstreth finds perfect balance between his newfound love-song skill and his abstractions of the past: “How could I ever be without you/ How could I ever hope to seize the tablet of values and redact it”.  The offbeat tom beat seals the deal for this brilliant tune.  The songwriting: immaculate.  The lyrics: universal.  Who knew that Longstreth could write songs so deeply personal, so connected to reality?  “Gun Has No Trigger”, although seemingly bland, particularly strikes me for the way the lyrics connect with the melody.  Longstreth has said that he wanted to make “the feeling of the melody and the feeling of the words match” on this track, and he succeeds.  The moment, “And now the night draws near”–although these lyrics seem to be banal—gives me chills every time.  This feeling persists through the song, leaving you to wonder what makes it so good: the drums and bass aren’t anything special, the lyrics aren’t particularly incredible, the melody itself doesn’t amaze—but that’s exactly it: the unity.

This isn’t to say that the record isn’t without missteps.  “Dance For You”, which immediately caught my attention and seemed to be becoming one of my favorite songs on the record, lost my interest when it lost its direction and lapsed into bizarre orchestral textures which it didn’t earn, forgoing melody for random swells that bear no relation to the main tune and ultimately just distract. “Irresponsible Tune” bludgeons me with the directness and lack of subtlety in its lyrics: “With our songs, we’re alone/But without songs we’re lost/and life is pointless, harsh, and long”.  Accompanied by bland and uninteresting songwriting, the ultimate tune of the record unfortunately disappoints.

I regard Swing Lo Magellan as a stellar sequel to Bitte Orca– one that takes the best themes and foundations of its predecessor and scaffolds an entirely new and original creation on top.  Tight songwriting and arranging, buttressed by incredible performances by all artists involved,  this album sits on the same pedestal as Bitte Orca– that is, I will listen to this album over and over again, in every possible environment, for months and months, squeezing the last bit of meaning and enjoyment from it just in time for the next record.

Album Rating: 9/10

Longstreth and Coffman harass a mountie on the album cover of their new record.