Dave Longstreth’s tunes under the Dirty Projectors blanket have always been transcendentally steeped in emotional tenor, but the stunning window dressing seemed to draw more and more of the attention as releases went on. While songs like “Naked We Made It” or “The Glad Fact” (both from 2003’s The Glad Fact) often laid the emotional material bare with simple accompaniment, each successive album seemed to show Longstreth learning new tricks, layering new songwriting theories and artistic concepts over the top. But when dealing with a composer as talented as Longstreth, there was never any room for complaint, especially with results as gasp-inducingly beautiful as 2009’s Bitte Orca or as heady as 2005’s The Getty Address. On Mount Wittenberg Orca, last year’s collaborative EP with BjÃ¶rk, the group stripped down, leaving haunting melodies in the open, with heartbreaking, straightforward lyrics to boot. Despite a high-flung concept about whales, “When the World Comes to an End” remains one of the most pure love songs of recent memory, its refrain (“When the world comes to an end/ I will have loved you/ For a long time”) sharply etched. That trend continues on Swing Lo Magellan, an album that may not have the eye-opening bravado that Bitte Orca did, but one that finds Longstreth and co. hitting a serious emotional stride.
There’s always been something referential and self-aware about the music in Dirty Projectors’ catalog, but the process seems exceptionally open on Swing Lo Magellan. It can’t be a coincidence on “Offspring Are Blank” when Longstreth mentions the pairing of eagle and snake, the same mythic reference he repeated on “D. Henley’s Dream” back on The Getty Address. It’s no accident that the giggled question “When should we bust into harmonies?” makes it into the final cut, either. Album closer “Irresponsible Tune” is a song about how songs make life better, and it closes the album with Longstreth providing his own backing vocals, returning to the hyper-self present on the acoustic strumming and vocals of Morning Better Last. Maybe it has to do with the fact that the material was written in upstate New York, Longstreth isolating himself and, according to press releases, writing approximately 70 songs in the process (pared down to 40 demos by the time the rest of the band joined him). This is Longstreth distilled, an emotional clarity and depth that surpasses the rest of his material.
That’s not to say that the figurative, metaphoric lyrics of past albums are out the window. The goblins, mutants, and zombies referenced on “About to Die” take the existential fear to a literary place, and the song’s quest for a “tablet of values” along with the desire to redact them is paired with the churning strings and cooed vocal harmonies, making for one of the bigger-sounding songs on the album. The wordless backing vocals from Dekle and guitarist/vocalist Amber Coffman may provide drama, but Longstreth’s lyrics (“But now the gate comes down/ The pangs are growing dimmer/ You hold a gun to your head/ But the gun has no trigger”) fold in on themselves in their epic pain.
There’s less of the world music influence on Swing Lo Magellan that pervaded Bitte Orca, instead replaced by a return to the roots of the early records, with a dash of The Beatles’ grandness in the pop elements. The lush “Impregnable Question” works on a level of ballad purity that is hard to match, Longstreth’s repetitions of the lines “You’re my love/ And I want you in my life” nearly matching “When the World Comes to an End” in terms of tear-jerking simplicity. The song plays out like wedding vows, crooning lines like “What is mine is yours/ In happiness and in strife” with a sincerity that could come off as cheesy from so many other vocal cords. The simple percussion, light bass pop, and swinging acoustic guitar of the title track and the churning electric guitar drama of “Maybe That Was It” echo elements of The Beatles’ pure pop mastery.
In the end, the album plays on the concept of trading bravado in for honesty. Coffman’s solo turn may not have the same flash or unforgettable hook that “Stillness Is the Move” did, but its simple lyrics (“I’m going to try combing my hair a thousand ways/ Maybe he will notice me/ Maybe look my way”) hit a nerve that the power ballad never could. So many of the songs on this album focus on “her” or “she,” Longstreth delivering lines personally and directly, and that straightforward, plain element has an undeniable power. While there might not be the same crackling experimentalism as on Bitte Orca (and there might never be), Swing Lo Magellan is an album that will break hearts, bring joy, and deliver emotional notes that few others could.
Essential Tracks: “Impregnable Question”, “The Gun Has No Trigger”, and “Irresponsible Tune”
Feature artwork by Cap Blackard.