Album Review: Swing Lo Magellan, Dirty Projectors, 2012
By Julia Ringo
If any rock band deserves the adjective â€œexperimentalâ€â€”in either the positive sense connoting bold artistic innovation or the negative one that suggests unlistenable showoffinessâ€”itâ€™s Dirty Projectors. The first album released under the bandâ€™s name (instead of under frontman and band visionary Dave Longstrethâ€™s) was 2003â€™s The Glad Fact, the themes and stylistic choices of which roamed the map. The Getty Address, released in 2005, is a largely unintelligible â€œglitch operaâ€ about former Eagles drummer/vocalist Don Henley. And 2007â€™s Rise Above? A concept album that constitutes Longstrethâ€™s attempt to remember Black Flagâ€™s album Damaged, 15 years after he last heard it.
But to describe only Dirty Projectorsâ€™ experimental quality, or even to focus on Longstrethâ€™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: â€œThe 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 graveâ€.) With this yearâ€™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 â€œOffspring are Blankâ€ starts off innocuously enough, with a hand-clapped beat drifted over with Amber Coffman and Haley Dekleâ€™s sweet cooing ooohsâ€”both common techniques to many of the tracks hereâ€”before Longstrethâ€™s as-yet-restrained vocals give way to a shredding, rock-n-roll chorus. Thereâ€™s a sense of earnestness here, one thatâ€™s echoed in the yearning, low-key title track (â€œI saw my friend in a pool of light/All drowned in doubt and shame/And I knew that I had lost my sightâ€) and in â€œImpregnable Questionâ€, a gorgeously harmonized duet between Longstreth and Coffman. That earnestness takes its most heartbreaking form in standout track â€œJust from Chevronâ€, 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: â€œGasket 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 frozeâ€. His response to his friend, sung by Longstreth, is brimming not with murky wordplay but with tragic irony. â€œDon’t think I won’t try/When I close my eyes;/Whatever the people will drive/I swear I will be alive,â€ he says, sacrificing himself to his employerâ€™s mission, and eventually â€œClosing his eyelids, his face turning greyâ€.
â€œGun Has No Triggerâ€, the albumâ€™s jangly, rhythmic single, holds its own proudly with the rest of the newer tracks. Only one song, fuzzily drifting final track â€œIrresponsible Tuneâ€, fails to register much of a lasting impact, despite the strength of its lyrical assertions (â€œâ€¦without songs we’re lost/And life is pointless, harsh, and longâ€). Better to focus on another standout, â€œDance for Youâ€, which features a chorus that should move even those who accuse this band of inscrutable intellectuality: â€œThere is an answer/I havenâ€™t found it/But I will keep dancing â€™til I doâ€. If Dirty Projectorsâ€™ discography represents the play between intellect and a more liberated musicality, Swing Lo Magellan is the bandâ€™s most triumphant blending of the two, resulting in an album that pays off in both craftsmanship and emotional resonance.