Alien Embraces: A Review of Dirty Projectors, Swing Lo Magellan

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Dirty Projectors, Swing Lo Magellan

For a decade, Dave Longstreth, the fearless leader of Dirty Projectors, has built musical environments with dizzying vocal and orchestral arrangements.  (If Longstreth were an architect, he would either be celebrated or reviled, a fearlessness that makes his musical output so compelling to fans and annoying to haters.)  On their sixth full album, Dirty Projectors are in top form. From the sweetly spectral hums, handclaps, and “oohs” of the opening track, you’re in the hands of a capable, if eccentric, guide who promises to deliver you into a strange new wilderness where “the vastness grasps you like an alien embrace.”

Swing Lo Magellan is a characteristically quirky, sincere, and confident collection of songs that show Longstreth growing as an intuitive songwriter who brings out the strengths of those in his company.  If his own wrenching delivery pulses as a track’s torn and twisted heart, then certainly Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle’s contributions are the soul of tunes like the excellent “Gun Has No Trigger” and the cryptic love song “About to Die.”

Fans of the doo-woppy intimations on Bitte Orca – the band’s last album and first (relatively) mainstream success—will be pleased that love songs abound, providing ample opportunity for chemistry between the warbler and his songbirds.  “Impregnable Question,” with its sparsely plaintive piano melody, is by far the best example. Recalling the sweetest of 60s’ girl groups, its mirrored vocals, tambourine flourishes, and simple declarations (“You’re my love/And I want you in my life”) are enough to make even the most dedicated experimental rockers appreciate the self-possession it takes for a “kitchen sink” composer to lay everything bare.

The album also gives a sense of a band hard at play, as evidenced by any number of “outtakes” that ground the album in its own fanciful reality.  From the throat clearing at the beginning of “Offspring are Blank” to the cheeky asides throughout “Unto Caesar,” Dirty Projectors seem totally comfortable working with one another, and themselves curious and excited to see what this album will become.

Kidding aside, Longstreth gets deep on the album’s stripped-down title track, only hinting at a pervasive longing that he turns a spotlight on elsewhere.  “There is an answer – I haven’t found it,” he admits on “Dance For You” … “but I will keep dancing until I do…”.  One of the most exciting tracks in terms of future directions for the band, the lush and tripped out “Maybe That Was It” seems to borrow from the Velvet Underground.  Finally, the satisfying and deeply personal closer “Irresponsible Tune,” opens the window into what makes Longstreth tick even wider as he confesses that “In my heart, there is music; in my mind, is a song; but in my eyes, a world crooked, fucked up and wrong” and wonders “will there be peace in the world?” Neither the song nor the album tie themselves up neatly; in the end, lasting peace is elusive.  But in Swing Lo Magellan Dirty Projectors give a glimpse at beauty through their kaleidoscope, and while the image is as complex as their past offerings, it seems more beautiful, and more real.

Tiffany Hairston lives, works, and plays in Washington, DC, where she was born and where she claims she will die at the age of sixty-three-and-a-half. She believes your golden years should be almost as tumultuous as your twenties.  She spends a lot of time daydreaming, often about what she would put on a playlist for a formerly deaf person and recent recipient of a cochlear implant, hearing music for the very first time. 

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