Dirty Projectors have always come across as more of an experiment than a traditional band. Between their 2003 debut The Glad Fact and 2009’s landmark Bitte Orca, singer/songwriter David Longstreth and his collaborators treated each album as an opportunity to explore new, uncharted sonic territory. Like scientists of sound, they drew from such diverse palates as African drumming patterns and R&B vocal runs to create their unique and intellectual compositions. Dirty Projectors seemed inventive, but their uniqueness also lent itself to an air of pretension.
After listening to Swing Lo Magellan (Domino; 2012), Dirty Projectors’ latest release, I was thrilled to discover that David Longstreth has finally relaxed. Both lyrically and sonically, this is the simplest record that the group has ever produced. The sparse arrangements, distinctive vocals and full harmonies are refreshing, yet they feel more comforting than Bitte Orca did three years ago. If that album was a wave, then Swing Lo is a breeze. Gentler, warmer and ultimately, more rewarding.
What struck me most about this album was how incredibly honest it felt; one year ago, I don’t think anyone could have guessed that Longstreth would eventually write a song as heartwrenchingly genuine as “Impregnable Question”. It shows an emotional vulnerability that has been absent from most of the band’s previous work. This is a song that knows exactly what it is – a short, sweet and sincere love song – and not once does it try to prove the listener otherwise:
“We have shared it all. We have both stood tall / What is mine is yours / In happiness and strife / You are my love and I want you in my life”
The rest of the album contains this same sincerity. Leading up to Swing Lo Magellan‘s release, Longstreth explained his new focus on songwriting:
“This album is more personal; you could say Bitte is about the idea of songs, but these are just songs. It’s less about self-consciously appropriating elements of other styles and putting them together in some clever way.
Ultimately, it was Longstreth’s songwriting that made me fall in love with this album. Swing Lo Magellan is full of amazing sounds (see: “Gun Has No Trigger”‘s minimalist tension or Amber Coffman’s stunning delivery of “The Socialites”), but it’s the honesty inherent in so many of these tracks that really makes it special. The final two songs, “Unto Caesar” and “Irresponsible Tune”, are each a different example of why this works so well.
Lyrically, “Unto Caesar” is probably the most cryptic and confusing song on the album. Yet, it is also the most relaxed. For the first half of the song, acoustic guitar and punchy horns create a happy, bright atmosphere. But it’s at the song’s midpoint that the band really starts to loosen up. First, we hear laughter and studio chatter (“When should we bust in the harmonies?”). Then, all of the instruments drop out of the track, leaving only voice and hand claps. Finally, more quips (“Uhh, that doesn’t make any sense, what you just said.”) and impromptu vocal runs are heard before the song reaches its exciting sonic climax. “Unto Caesar” is both candid and fun, and shows an exhilarating new side of Dirty Projectors.
It seems fitting that Swing Lo‘s final track is also its simplest. “Irresponsible Tune” is built around three main elements: a stripped-back instrumental, Longstreth’s self harmonies (the girls sit this one out) and a lead vocal practically dripping with delay. The sound is different from anything that Dirty Projectors have ever done before; it’ll be especially shocking for long-time fans of the band. Bit it’s this simplicity that allows Longstreth’s lyrical anxiety to shine through:
“Will there be peace in the world? / Or will violence always rule the truth? / There’s a bird singing at my window / An irresponsible tune”
Some albums operate around a sort of central idea or purpose, meant to provide a cohesive and meaningful listening experience. There are many great albums that are conceptual, cerebral, or some combination of the two. On the contrary, Swing Lo Magellan is simply a collection of songs, all very different and all very good. Some may wonder if the lack of a concept is in fact a concept in and of itself. For me, however, these songs are just so damn wonderful that I’d be wasting my time. This isn’t an album to think about; this is an album that should simply be enjoyed.
Swing Lo Magellan is full of excellent songwriting, sonic surprises and Dirty Projectors’ trademark uniqueness. Most importantly, however, it is emotive. Music’s greatest power lies in its ability to communicate emotion. After several albums and almost ten years, it seems that David Longstreth has finally realised this potential.