If there’s one constant you can count on with Dirty Projectors, it’s their ability to confound and be inconsistent. That’s not meant as a criticism by the way, far from it; Dave Longstreth just doesn’t do repetition. He also doesn’t talk down to his audience, recently decrying the “deskilled, attitude-based approach” so in vogue among the indie fraternity to be “boring” and “fucking dead”; two adjectives at the opposite end of the spectrum from a virtuoso who’s more modern composer than mere songwriter, and equally happy channelling contemporary classicist György Ligeti as extolling the virtues of Nicki Minaj’s ‘Stupid Hoe’. ‘Challenging” can often be a dirty word – even though it’s as inaccurate as it is demeaning – but the sheer scope of ideas and ambition shoe-horned into previous releases left critics and fans alike scrabbling in vain to find an alternative.
Such an approach can come across as suffocatingly complicated, an impenetrable mass where the idea gets in the way of the execution and it’s to their credit that they never fully slipped into that trap. 2005’s ‘The Getty Address’ and 2007’s ‘Rise Above’ – a from-memory reinterpretation of Black Flag’s ‘Damaged’ – came perilously close, hamstrung by a suspicion that Longstreth’s too-clever-by-half tendencies got in the way of the actual songs; a precociousness he started to lose amid the art-pop joy of ‘Bitte Orca’. Taming the yin-yang struggle between inventiveness and sensibility, that record saw the group bathing in blissful melodies and concise, breezy tunes, a formula they fully cement on ‘Swing Lo Magellan’. Effortless and catchy, the twelve tracks here flit between playfulness & a dead-eyed seriousness – proper songs that soar and swoon and hit you right in the heart. Knowing their history, listening is not unlike watching a butterfly emerge into the sunlight, revealing the hidden beauty that you knew lay just below the surface.
That’s not to say ‘Swing Lo Magellan’ is a simple or uncomplicated work. From the scruffy guitar lines of ‘Maybe That Was It’ to the orchestral breakdown that interrupts ‘Dance For You’, Longstreth’s keen eye for a flourish remains. Freed from the constraints of a unified concept, the songs are allowed to just /i/be/i/ as they languidly unfurl, a direct contrast to jittery nervousness of their earlier work. This newfound breathing space suits the band perfectly, allowing them to dip in and out of an extended repertoire of styles and motifs. Melody may be king here, but dig deep and you’ll find a savvy use of rhythm; the slinky R&B beat buried in the heart of opener ‘Offspring Are Blank’, the funk bass that drives ‘Gun Has No Trigger’, and the skittering, bustling drums of ‘Dance With You’.
It’s perhaps the album’s biggest strength that such a disparate range of material hangs so well together. Scrabbling around in experimental lo-fi has served them pretty well over the years, and there’s plenty of that here – ‘About To Die’ explores the same musical landscape that Merrill Garbus has all but made her own, while ‘The Socialites’ sparse arrangement doesn’t really go anywhere – but what’s really impressive is how easily Longstreth slips through the gears towards more conventional fare. The title track, born from his love of Bob Dylan, in particular ‘John Wesley Harding’, has a simplicity and directness that’s mirrored in piano ballad ‘Impregnable Question’’s self-referential tale of working through a relationships inevitable difficulties, while ‘Just From Chevron’ may be the most gentile song ever written about an oil spill. Coming from a songwriter more known for the angular awkwardness of songs like ‘Spray Paint (The Walls)’ renders its pessimistic, discordant beauty all the more impressive, a trick he repeats with the sighing synths and strings of ‘See What She Seeing’.
Towering above all of those however, is ‘Gun Has No Trigger’, a topical rumination on modern America and by far the best thing they’ve ever committed to tape. Backed by a sea of female harmonies and gentle coos, that voice swings between quivering menace and shrill emotion, showcasing a band at their insouciant best and a crystallisation of everything that makes them such a vibrant, interesting group. More than any other it, and the album as a whole, serve as a vindication for the idea of emotionally investing in an artist, and trusting them to follow their own path. It’s the sound of Dirty Projectors just being themselves and fully justifying the royalty status Longstreth and Co. now enjoy.
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