Album Review: Swing Lo Magellan, Dirty Projectors, 2012
By Julia Ringo
If any rock band deserves the adjective “experimental”—in either the positive sense connoting bold artistic innovation or the negative one that suggests unlistenable showoffiness—it’s Dirty Projectors. The first album released under the band’s name (instead of under frontman and band visionary Dave Longstreth’s) was 2003’s The Glad Fact, the themes and stylistic choices of which roamed the map. The Getty Address, released in 2005, is a largely unintelligible “glitch opera” about former Eagles drummer/vocalist Don Henley. And 2007’s Rise Above? A concept album that constitutes Longstreth’s attempt to remember Black Flag’s album Damaged, 15 years after he last heard it.
But to describe only Dirty Projectors’ experimental quality, or even to focus on Longstreth’s Yale-graduate vocabulary and repertoire of erudite references, is to miss the extraordinary lyrical and instrumental beauty the band achieves regularly. (From The Glad Fact: “The new feelings will rise up like fake blood in crisp October/From the cracks and the edges of the graves of our proudest moments/Because that’s not a monument, it’s a grave”.) With this year’s Swing Lo Magellan, Dirty Projectors abandons much of the pretense and conceptual artifice that alienated listeners in the past to produce an album of rare emotional depth and raw power.
Album opener “Offspring are Blank” starts off innocuously enough, with a hand-clapped beat drifted over with Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle’s sweet cooing ooohs—both common techniques to many of the tracks here—before Longstreth’s as-yet-restrained vocals give way to a shredding, rock-n-roll chorus. There’s a sense of earnestness here, one that’s echoed in the yearning, low-key title track (“I saw my friend in a pool of light/All drowned in doubt and shame/And I knew that I had lost my sight”) and in “Impregnable Question”, a gorgeously harmonized duet between Longstreth and Coffman. That earnestness takes its most heartbreaking form in standout track “Just from Chevron”, about a presumed employee of the titular corporation dying in the ice after an Arctic oil spill. Coffman and Dekle softly sing an introduction to his plight: “Gasket had busted out/ Pinned down like a vice./As the sun sank into repose/A friend knelt and listened/To his dying words as he froze”. His response to his friend, sung by Longstreth, is brimming not with murky wordplay but with tragic irony. “Don’t think I won’t try/When I close my eyes;/Whatever the people will drive/I swear I will be alive,” he says, sacrificing himself to his employer’s mission, and eventually “Closing his eyelids, his face turning grey”.
“Gun Has No Trigger”, the album’s jangly, rhythmic single, holds its own proudly with the rest of the newer tracks. Only one song, fuzzily drifting final track “Irresponsible Tune”, fails to register much of a lasting impact, despite the strength of its lyrical assertions (“…without songs we’re lost/And life is pointless, harsh, and long”). Better to focus on another standout, “Dance for You”, which features a chorus that should move even those who accuse this band of inscrutable intellectuality: “There is an answer/I haven’t found it/But I will keep dancing ’til I do”. If Dirty Projectors’ discography represents the play between intellect and a more liberated musicality, Swing Lo Magellan is the band’s most triumphant blending of the two, resulting in an album that pays off in both craftsmanship and emotional resonance.