I met Dave Longstreth once, following a brilliant concert he played at my college in front of a dozen or so fans on some mid-finals Tuesday night. I remember awkwardly gushing to him, in one of my most fanboyish moves of all time, saying something along the lines of, “The Getty Address changed my life.” Yarf. Longstreth politely nodded his thanks before no doubt searching out less weirdly effusive strangers to talk to.
Hyperbolic, maybe, but I stand by the statement. More than any other group currently making music, the Dirty Projectors have continuously found ways to bend and twist the way I listen to music. I thought Getty Address was near-perfection. I thought Bitte Orca was phenomenal. And here I am, surprise surprise, about to tell you that the band’s seventh full length, Swing Lo Magellan, is the real deal.
Longstreth has always been known as a perfectionist, with OCD-like attention to detail and rehearsals so grueling that they border on urban legend. Though the cast of characters surrounding him has morphed over time, growing to include stand-out female vocalists Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian, and Haley Dekle, bass shredder Nat Baldwin, and others (and notably shrinking this go-round as Deradoorian takes a hiatus from recording with the band), Longstreth has always held onto the reins. This time around, he sequestered himself in an upstate New York house in the middle of the woods, reportedly writing 40 different songs before whittling the pack down to the dozen found on Magellan. Everything in its right place.
That’s why it’s oddly thrilling to hear things like Haley and Amber discussing when to come in with harmonies on “Unto Caesar” or mock Longstreth’s lyrics with a casual “Uh, that doesn’t make any sense, what you just said.” The album is dotted with a throat clearing here, an under-the-breath “Oh shit” there, and a generally more flexible structure, giving listeners the sense that Swing Lo Magellan is very much a living, breathing thing. Where past Projectors releases have occasionally bordered on sterile – or at the very least clinical – this one hums with activity.
“A lot of my vocals were the first time I ever sang the song,” Longstreth recently told Pitchfork, and I’m not entirely surprised. But don’t let that sentiment lull you into thinking this album was slapped together. As always, Longstreth balances his tunes impeccably, often splitting vocals and percussion across the stereo channel – listen in one ear only and you miss half of what’s going on. This is a man, and a band, thinking about music constantly and tinkering with the sound to get it just right.
Perhaps the most noticeable change since Bitte Orca is Swing Lo Magellan’s heavy reliance on hand claps instead of heavier percussion, opening up the record’s space and giving it a more easy-going sound. That, combined with Longstreth’s turn toward more straightforward songwriting, makes Swing Lo Magellan the Dirty Projectors’ most approachable album yet. It’s not lacking for challenges, but for a band that gave us a glitch opera about a Cortes-inspired explorer named Don Henley, simple is a relative term.
“Just From Chevron” is one of the band’s most evocative songs to date, nearly carol-like in its harmonies but quite the opposite in subject matter. On a very different sonic tip, lead single, “Gun Has No Trigger” is all Cee-Lo and Bond Theme, but with similarly cutting societal commentary baked in. Meanwhile “Dance For You” and the jaw-dropping “See What She Seeing” are perhaps the most personal songs Longstreth has ever recorded.
Part of Swing Lo Magellan’s accessability comes straight from Longstreth, who outlined his thoughts in that same interview: “I just don’t want to do the same thing over and over again. I do feel like the hardest thing is to do something simple and tap into whatever remains of our common language rather than cultivating your own willfully esoteric vocabulary,” he said. And later, “I’ve been obsessed with arrangement for a long time, and this one is not about that. It’s about the words and the language and the melodies.”
I’ve seen the Dirty Projectors a few times in concert over the years, but never did I see them having as much fun as they did on the Bitte Orca tour, with Amber and Angel pinging vocals back and forth across the stage. On this album, though Angel has ducked out, that feeling is pervasive. Swing Lo Magellan is a little darker at times, yet the recording comes off as more natural, more organic. Longstreth and his Projectors are having a great time, and they’re making incredible music in the process.