With a grubby charm familiar to the young and woodsy newcomers sweeping Upstate New York (recorded home of Swing Lo Magellan), Dave Longstreth tutors a gawking old timer in the devices of air guitar as the humbly angelic Amber Coffman observes from stage right. With a backdrop of leafless timbers and the wealthy sunlight, this image on the cover of Dirty Projectors’ new full length speaks to the values of the record it illustrates. There is kinship exemplified among band mates and unlikely friends. There is nature in all its honest beauty, without the hoaxy thrill of loud eye candy. There is earnest in the lack of glitz that Swing Lo Magellan attempts, even with their fancy beat machines and virtuosic riffing. However, this experiment in weighing down luxe with a newly embraced authenticity, sometimes falls short of hitting the perfect balance.
Departing from 2009’s Bitte Orca, a critically acclaimed success responsible for a surge in listenership and cherished spot in the ranks of alt. music’s finest, the new album journeys into territories of soulful choral melodies and lyrical simplicity that Bitte left untapped. Swing Lo Magellan explores the access and adaptability of borrowing, with grooves and melodic motives that recall all, from reggae hits (namely the tuned percussion, surfy guitar timbres and octave-jumping vocals in “About to Die”) to gospel ballads circa 1950s high school gymnasium (the somber, acoustic guitar driven “Irresponsible Tune”). Such an effort likely means to break the Dirty Projectors’ audience outward. In making a record that samples such highlights of pop music history, Longstreth and co. are very carefully branching out to the people, trying and in some cases suffering not to lose the sharp ingenuity that the indie world has fallen in love with.
Coinciding with these ventures in pop recall, Longstreth’s lyrical formulas on this new album lend the band some desired sentimentality. The humanistic simplicity inherent to tales of love and loss in “Offspring Are Blank” and “About to Die”, replace a cryptic disjointedness in Bitte Orca that lead to little if any gripping storytelling or character development. Not to say that Longstreth here illustrates a new knack for narrative, but driving one liners like “He was made to love her/ She was made to love him” lend some heart to the wailing lyricist that strides with the sound better than the broken circles of foggy mystique that colored the words of Bitte Orca. Despite being cornier than anyone might expect from Dirty Projectors, Longstreth’s amorous honesty in lines like “You’re my love and I want you in my life,” hone in on an affect of satisfying, if not guilty pleasure. In relinquishing lyrical obscurity, Longstreth and his flawless canaries tend to delve into darker topical territories, notably of near-death experiences and failed suicide attempts (“About to Die” and “Gun Has No Trigger” respectively). The combined motions away from the almost alien enigma perfectly fitting for the mechanical mystery in Bitte Orca, and the newfound naturalism that defines Swing Lo Magellan both lyrically and sonically lends these vocalizing characters some endearing personality.
The attempted tap into the ears of a broader listenership is executed with both nostalgic genre referencing and a freshly appropriated beatspeak, defining the feel of tracks like “See What She Seeing.” The nodding rhythmic disjunct combined with trademark theatrics in vocal presentation and string ditties, is simultaneously glitch-heavy and soothing enough to appease both Brainfeeder geeks and their purist counterparts. However, this multifaceted approachability, embracing the crowd pleasers of the past and the throbbing pulse of momentary trend alike, is a confused effort that suffers in places to amass enough stylistic adhesive to hold this record in place. What Bitte Orca achieves in wholeness, Swing Lo Magellan complicates with differing means of branching out.
While the eclecticism creates momentary conflicts and an arguable loss of some desired uniformity, the record does not lose hold on the Dirty Projectors aesthetic. Bold reliance on atonal harmony (the band cites Schoenberg and Ligetti as major influences) contextualized by throbbing rock and roll, is a task few in the known music world pull off with the ease and ingenuity of Longstreth, as Swing Lo Magellan firmly attests to. The combined virtuosic expositions in vocal perfection and boggling guitar parts, coupled with the lax of a jamming stoner, is a trademark charm well maintained by Swing Lo Magellan. The opening and closing tracks loom in cradled melody with soft choral hums, following up on the reference to African-American spiritual “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” inferred by the album title. The meat between these wafers of thematic clarity strike sonic gold in places where the humanist motives new to this record move gracefully between raucous riffing and warm vocality. Caught in less convincing gaps between these momentary gems are the motions for the masses, a palette of well orchestrated references that don’t quite achieve enough solidarity to join the ranks with Bitte Orca. Despite these shortcomings, Swing Lo Magellan is a worthy, in part marvelous product that certainly marks no irreversible spiral for the Dirty Projectors.