Review: Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan

Ashley Cooke finds Dirty Projectors’ new release to be their most accessible album yet…

Ed Droste of Grizzly Bear once told someone he was listening to Bitte Orca, the last Dirty Projectors album, but when they asked him what kind of music it was he was left flummoxed.  ‘There are so many different things and there’s so much going on and Bitte Orca is so distinctly Dirty Projectors that I didn’t even know how to begin to describe what genre it is, you know?’ Experimental rock or art pop are genres bandied about to describe the group’s unique sound, but they don’t give much of an insight into what you’re in store for. What Dirty Projectors do is craft brilliant vocal harmonies between David Longstreth and Amber Coffman, display quite unusual guitar work, both frantic acoustic fingerpicking and overdriven outbursts, often replace clapping for drum beats, and generally keeping the listener on their toes with exciting and unconventional song progressions. There isn’t really one word to describe that.

Swing Lo Magellan is the sixth album by the group and, for all their ‘experimental’ leanings, it finds them at their most accessible yet. Longstreth, the group’s founding member, told Pitchfork in a recent interview that the album is more personal that Bitte Orca and focused more on crafting individual songs, rather than an overall concept for the twelve tracks. The album was recorded over the space of about a year and, accordingly, the songs are remarkably diverse. Taking the album’s opening and closing tracks illustrates the variation. ‘Offspring Are Blank’ is a classic Dirty Projectors track that would suggest a continuity with their previous work. It begins a cappella, with a chorus of humming over a clapped beat. Slowly, glitchy electronic sounds enter, and then after a minute and a half, a distorted guitar and crashing drums come bursting into the foreground for a rhythmic refrain of, ’He was made to love her/She was made to love him’, before disappearing as quickly as they came. ‘Irresponsible Tune’, the album’s closing track, could not be more different. It’s very much an acoustic folk song with quite conventional construction, that could easily fit onto an M. Ward album.

If these are the two extremes of the album, then the remaining songs fall somewhere in between. ‘Gun Has No Trigger’ is one of the stronger tracks on the album, and tends toward the more experimental leanings on the album. Quite plainly, it’s a fun track. It doesn’t progress as you would predict, and it showcases Longstreth’s voice. On the other hand, the title track, ‘Swing Lo Magellan’, bears the album’s folk leanings. Recorded in Upstate New York, a New England haven of lakes, forests, and mountain ranges, the Appalachian influence can be felt in the music and the natural imagery. On penultimate track, ‘Unto Caesar’, Longstreth sings, ‘So I’m forward like no imaginable breeze/Moral as a leaf to fall in to the seas.’ The album’s artwork, a photograph taken by Longstreth’s brother, depicts Longstreth and Coffman talking to one of their neighbours when they were recording upstate. In a country setting, with a dense tree line to the background and all clad in winter coats, it captures a very natural imagery.

Arrangement is very important to the group, but that doesn’t mean they take themselves too seriously. On ‘Unto Caesar’, when Longstreth sings, ‘Dandelion did the morals morbid poetry’, a female voice exclaims, ‘Err, that doesn’t make any sense what you just said.’ Just a few lines earlier, the same voice remarked, ‘When should we bust into harmony?’ As unconventionally structured as their songs can be, this self-aware remark suggests they have some sense of formula, and certainly a sense of humour. With Dirty Projectors first foray into more popular music on Swing Lo Magellan, though by no means orthodox, they’ve created a thoroughly enjoyable album, and appear to have had a lot of fun doing so.