Dirty Projectors: Swing Lo Magellan
“When should we bust into harmony,” Dirty Projectors vocalist Amber Coffman asks on “Unto Caesar”, the penultimate track on Swing Lo Magellan. That the question is asked so close to the album’s end is very telling. Though it’s hard to tell if the question is as meticulously placed as everything else on the album, it puts to paid the notion that the traditional notion of musicality carries far less weight on a Dirty Projectors album than it would elsewhere. Swing Lo Magellan offers a more democratic view of the act of creation, one in which the tools that make the music are equal in value to the maker of the music. Harmony is only one value by which music can be regarded as a success. That is not to say there aren’t instances of harmonic transcendence on Swing Lo Magellan. In fact, the album is lousy with such moments. But they arrive in their own good time and according to a logic that could only be described as unique to the music of Dirty Projectors, which is a recombinant distillation of music history that is as specific as it is diverse.
Within the span of a single song, deeply spiritual moans can butt up against an alterna-tastic 1994 grunge riff that can itself be supplanted by a flare-up of staccato hand claps and the majestic sweep of cello. This dissonance is made more jarring by the discreteness of the components. They are not blended, but juxtaposed against one another, lending to an affect of movements, in the classical sense, and songs within songs. It is very clear that their is little room for randomness in the game Longstreth is playing. For better or worse, every second of music is as carefully placed as the final card in a house of cards. Such a level of precision dictates that it would also be the case that Longstreth is saying just as much with what he leaves out of the song as what he puts into the song. Given his obvious knowledge of musical minutiae, far flung and disparate, it would not be surprising if, in order to underscore some often ignored nuance, he is making some of these juxtapositions because they are exactly wrong. Lines that could easily be couplets are left dangling or unrhymed. Handclaps and finger snaps are clipped and looped so as to lose their humanity and become mere instruments of percussion. Though it may conflict with what the gut, the brain, or even the heart wants on a reflexive level, every note on this album is meant to serve The Sound, that elusive, phantom force that will be glimpsed if it’s right, but glaring if it’s wrong. If for no other reason, Longstreth should be praised for his ambition.
On the whole, Swing Lo Magellan feels like something that is continuously arriving. The constant tonal shifts make for a very dynamic listen, but when there is as much dynamism as this record offers, the big, dramatic shifts lose some of their bite and everything that is left feels diluted, rinsed of substance. Swing Lo Magellan is a searching, probing thing. Longstreth’s creamy croon is not unlike Vampire Weekend‘s Ezra Koenig or that of a young Elvis Costello, given to lilts, and lifts, and dramatic drops. It is particularly suited to the drama and seriousness of the endeavor and provides an anchor of humanity when the experiment threatens to go FUBAR. Should an apology –or at least an explanation– be required, it is Longstreth’s voice and his words that shed the most light on his willfully obtuse creative process and on the toll that process takes on him. Perhaps the most telling lyric comes in the final song, “Irresponsible Tune,” when he sings against a back drop of delicately plucked strings: “With our songs, we are outlaws/with our songs, we’re alone/without songs, we’re lost and life is pointless, harsh, and long.” It would be easy to say that Longstreth is mapping new territory like the explorer from whom the album gets its name. Magellan sought glory, though. As the lyric indicates, Longstreth can’t not explore.
MP3: Dirty Projectors “Swing Lo Magellan”
Buy: iTunes or Insound! vinyl
Dirty Projectors: Swing Lo Magellan