Brooklyn's eclectic progsters prove that their simplest moments can be their most engaging
The sixth album by Dirty Projectors is the sound of a band sprouting in multiple directions. Although you imagine that Dave Longstreth, the Brooklyn ensemble’s founder and sole constant member, is at pains to surpass and stretch himself with every release, the keyword for ‘Swing Lo Magellan’ has to be “most”. These 12 songs are their most puffed-chest proggy yet; their most exquisitely popwise; and, if not quite dancefloor-friendly, their most obvious nod to dance music.
Even though, thanks to Longstreth’s unique vocal style, it’s easily identifiable as the same band who covered an album of Black Flag songs from teenage memory (‘Rise Above’) and put their own spin on melismatic R&B (2009 single ‘Stillness Is The Move’), most previous musical hallmarks have been left behind. One notable element remains: people have talked before, sometimes disparagingly, about the way the two female Dirty Projectors (currently: Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle) are so often reduced to cooing harmonising backing vocalists. This is still the case on ‘Swing Lo Magellan’, and it remains effective. When, on ‘Just From Chevron’, the pair eventually escape their harmonic drudgery to grab the spotlight for the song’s final verse, it’s lightly triumphant.
And then there’s ‘Gun Has No Trigger’, plausibly the most bombastic song the group have penned to date, on which Coffman and Dekle swell as Longstreth grasps for the chorus. He sounds paranoid, questing and exasperated; the song, he’s claimed, concerns “the possibility for true dissent” and our collective failure to actually enact it. This helps uncover the elephant in the room: ‘Gun…’ is like a Muse song with the guitar and drums removed. Will this cause as much splenetic outrage with the Projectors’ fanbase as Muse’s frightening new brostep direction did with theirs? Probably not, but it’s a cheeky curveball of a lead single.
It also sounds very little like anything else on ‘Swing…’, yet there are other moments that could still be described as “rocking”. ‘Offspring Are Blank’ kicks the album off with a cappella parts, intentionally plastic-sounding metronomic clicks and subtly large sub-bass. Squalling guitar swells usher in the chorus, and you envisage Longstreth as a conductor with a femur for a baton, leaping off a podium as the bandchestra erupt. ‘Maybe That Was It’, while more low-key, is a slow, gnarly abstraction of the blues, nodding to Captain Beefheart and Pavement at their knottiest.
Hard to credit, then, that it appears on the same album as the baffling ‘About To Die’. Underpinned by a breakbeat which sounds like someone tried to emulate the rhythmic complexity of Chicago Juke but admitted defeat and handed in an unfinished work, it’s audacious – but somewhere short of good. If that sounds like an eye-roller, check out ‘Unto Caesar’, this record’s nadir: lumbering acousticisms inexplicably embellished halfway through by Coffman and Dekle interjecting, as if at a rehearsal: “What are you singing? That doesn’t make any sense”. You know how publications such as this one sometimes have quotes from an ‘ed’ in parentheses? It’s like that, but even more annoying. It’s food for the jaws of Dirty Projectors’ detractors: thinly spread eclecticism, winking Brooklynite irony and the comment box bore’s favourite, pretentiousness.
To this end, the album’s saviours are ‘Dance For You’ and ‘Impregnable Question’. The former indicates Longstreth’s pop heart – akin to Paul Simon circa ‘Graceland’, guitars skipping with the vigour of African highlife music – and is fully developed and healthy. The latter is powered by a simple piano motif and the perspective of someone watching as a relationship collapses, apparently against his will: “[i]You’re my love/And I want you in my life[/i]”. After exploring some most unlikely corners, ‘Swing Lo Magellan’ is arguably its best at its simplest. A lesson for Dirty Projectors, maybe? Oh, but they wouldn’t be half the band they are if they didn’t