Swing Lo Magellan
By Brent Ables | 6 September 2012
There’s something uniquely rewarding about watching a good experimental outfit morph into a great pop band. Take Animal Collective: the primitivistic noise-seance of their early days was powerful in a live setting, if occasionally grating on record, and offered experimental music fans an alternative to the relentless, dissonant rendings of a generation weaned on the likes of Merzbow. But with songs and discernible vocals came a new wave of followers from the other side of the aisle; indie rock and pop fans burnt out on the staid post-punk revivalists of the early aughts found in the band an adventurous and vital new interpretation of pop music. The band’s career became a fascinating dialectic of restless exploration and disarming accessibility; with Merriweather Post Pavilion (2009), they achieved an ideal balance of these impulses.
Swing Lo Magellan is, in my mind, every bit as impressive a career culmination as Merriweather. The bands are as different as you like—one unhinged, sweeping, and tribal, the other intricate and mannered—but the Dirty Projectors too have gradually gone from deliberate obtusity to effortless accessibility with grace and intelligence. In his initial review of this record, Conrad suggests that the difficulty and abstruseness of the Dirty Projectors’ early work has been exaggerated. It’s true enough that there are more challenging groups out there, but then no one’s going to mistake The Glad Fact (2003) for pop music either. “Difficult” is a relative term; whether or not they should have ever properly been placed at the fringes of contemporary music, the band’s gradual move towards greater accessibility is, in my mind, not really open for question. And I think a comprehensive trip through their discography bears this out.
David Longstreth’s music is just as cerebral and precise on Swing Lo Magellan as it’s ever been, but it’s also warm and playful and downright casual at times—none of which are words I ever would have thought could be applied to the Dirty Projector before now. Even Bitte Orca, their very good 2009 breakthrough, was by turns overly fussy (“Temecula Sunrise”) and plodding (“Useful Chamber”), even as it contained a handful of great rock songs and a stunning R&B crossover with “Stillness Is the Move.” This new record finds Longstreth reining in his propensity for overwriting and oversinging his material without downplaying his eccentricities, and although it’s not quite the technical showcase that past Dirty Projectors records have been, it exhibits a comfort and economy with its arrangements that’s remarkably refreshing after the obsessive-compulsive fixations of some of Longstreth’s past projects. In the process, it reveals itself as the Dirty Projectors’ best album by some distance.
Nowhere is this newfound joy and ease more conspicuous than on “Unto Ceaser,” where a gleeful group shout-along chorus bumps up against tongue-in-cheek harmonies and oddly endearing spoken asides (“So when do we bust into harmony?”). Where Conrad sees only “pointlessness” in these asides, I just hear a band having fun with a good tune; the making of a communal collaboration rather than a well orchestrated composition. An “Irresponsible Tune,” as it were. To be sure, not all the album is so carefree. Opener “Offspring Are Blank” introduces the record with a barbershop quartet moment, the band’s four vocalists humming in finely-tuned harmony, before Longstreth’s familiar affected melisma traces a careful melody. Soon after comes “Gun Has No Trigger,” the album’s stellar first single, wherein Longstreth delivers one of the most memorable melodies of the year to some of his bandmates’ most affecting harmonies yet. But it’s with the breezy title track that the album shows its true colors (think tropical green, ocean blue, fishscales). Longstreth’s busy electric guitar is largely supplanted by breezy steel-strings and inventive percussion from here on, and the lead/background harmonizing of the early tracks becomes a more communal back-and-forth.
Although the record maintains a consistent tone for most of its running time, the band explores an impressive variety of styles. The doo-wop harmonies of “Offspring Are Blank,” which also pop up at the end of the album, are offset by a loud, crunchy chorus that brings to mind the Pixies; the disarmingly sweet “Dance For You” dabbles in crisp new wave production; retro closer “Irresponsible Tune” sounds a little like (no shit) Elvis Presley. “Maybe That Was It,” a bit of an oddball here, sounds like Cream with its woozy psychedelia and bluesy guitar noodling. But the most successful material here, unlikely as it sounds, is the simplest: “Impregnable Question,” for example, or the lovely title track. These songs, along with the achingly beautiful “Just From Chevron,” demonstrate that when he isn’t burning through virtuoso guitar licks or scaling two octaves with a single syllable, David Longstreth has it in him to pen simple, and simply lovely, pop songs. That he does so without entirely renouncing his experimental spirit is just to be praised all the more.