The cover photo of Swing Lo Magellan, the first full length from Dirty Projectors since 2009’s Bitte Orca, is strikingly understated. The photo’s unremarkable composition, as well as the sheer normality of the scenario (frontman Dave Longstreth and vocalist Amber Coffman chatting with their neighbour in the woods in upstate New York), would seem to be directly at odds with the identity of a band so long associated with bold and uncompromising musical gestures. Yet, this unassuming photo is in fact broadly indicative of the avenues explored by Dirty Projectors on this new album.
Swing Lo Magellan is a record that exists firmly in the moment. From the brief throat-clearing which signals the beginning of the album to the studio chatter that peppers the background of the playful Unto Caesar, there is a loose, and occasionally irreverent, atmosphere pervading the entirety of this record. In contrast to the band’s previous works which have all shared in their unflinching ambition to attain a strict, predetermined aesthetic vision (the synthetic sheen of Bitte Orca, Rise Above’s queasy reimagining of Black Flag’s Damaged), Swing Lo Magellan is a record driven by a desire to document the innate, ragged spontaneity of communal music making, a shift of focus reflected in the impromptu and wilfully unspectacular cover photo.
In loosening his hold over the intermediary process between the inception and realisation of his songs, chief songwriter Dave Longstreth has placed a refreshing emphasis on impulse and imperfection, culminating in Dirty Projectors’ most approachable album to date. The gorgeous title track is probably the closest he has ever come to assuming the role of acoustic singer-songwriter, with little more than a strummed guitar and metronomic rhythm section to propel his meandering vocal line. Longstreth has always been a unique, enigmatic songwriter and it is in such understated moments as the title track that his idiosyncrasies find a particularly complimentary framing. If, in the past, Dirty Projectors have rather unapologetically thrust Longstreth’s bizarre vision onto their listeners with a saturation of hyperactive guitars and vocal arrangements, then Swing Lo Magellan sees his myriad eccentricities instead seeping furtively into the music, subtly augmenting, rather than subsuming or defining, their setting.
An illuminating reference point for Longstreth’s songwriting on this record would be The Beatles’, and particularly John Lennon’s, ability to communicate a complex and engaging personality whilst working (at least to a degree) within the conventional structure of the pop song. In fact, that totemic classic Revolver could be seen as a spiritual predecessor of much of the music found on this record. With its subtly nuanced production sporting a handful of low-key embellishments from strings and woodwind, Swing Lo Magellan achieves a refined, timeless grace rarely heard outside of the world inhabited by Eleanor Rigby and I’m Only Sleeping. At once intimate and majestic, this music strikes a glorious balance between economy of expression and transcendent beauty.
What is most remarkable, and enduring, about Swing Lo Magellan is that, in reigning in the more unpredictable aspects of his music, Longstreth has managed to retain the essence that has made Dirty Projectors such a continually challenging and invigorating creative outfit over the years. The vocal arrangements are as slippery and claustrophobic as ever, sliding from crass ugliness to shimmering beauty in an instant, and the song structures are subversively off-kilter. Yet rather than forcibly suffocating proceedings with this untamed eccentricity, Swing Lo Magellan affords generous breathing space to Dirty Projectors’ music: a context in which new levels of unpretentious eloquence positively flourish.