Album Review: Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan

There are many things that could be said about Dirty Projectors to describe the Brooklyn collective to the uninitiated, but they’re best summarized as “interesting.” They’re the only band that can boast both a song cycle about Don Henley and a reconstructed-from-memory cover of Black Flag’s Damaged in their discography, but they also have Dave Longstreth, one of music’s most progressive thinkers who constantly reinvents and remodels his musical vision to produce results that are often unprecedented and never repetitive. (In fact, his unique approach to songcraft has often been so singular that a TIME Magazine writer once wrote that if a music critic’s job is to describe music, “Dave Longstreth makes that job undoable.”)

So what can be said about Swing Lo Magellan? Primarily, that the band’s sixth album has been advertised as their most personal release – which is certainly true – but just because some of its elements are relatively more direct doesn’t mean that Swing Lo Magellan is an open book. Longstreth is still making songs that need some analysis to reveal their full beauty, but by coming from a new, personal angle, Longstreth has flipped the equation – although Longstreth has made a name for himself by constructing records that held their intrigue in the finished result, the allure of Swing Lo Magellan’s personal, song-based format is in figuring out Longstreth’s process.

Upon first listen, the most obvious reason that Swing Lo Magellan represents a more personal approach from Longstreth is his lyrics, some of which, as he’s publicly admitted, are about his relationship with singer/guitarist Amber Coffman. Longstreth’s abstract (and sometimes borderline obtuse) lyrics have been a key characteristic of Dirty Projectors for most of their career, but on “Impregnable Question”, Longstreth sings “I will always hold what we shared, so long to be the only one/and though we don’t see eye to eye, I need you, and you’re always on my mind.” While not every lyric on the album is as (relatively) direct as this one, it’s a huge departure for Longstreth, and it further cements his reputation as a musician determined not to creatively stagnate. Lyrics aside, Swing Lo Magellan has some of the band’s most visceral textures and melodies, many of which are far more immediate than the band’s past work. Opener “Offspring Are Blank” not only features an invitingly soft vocal groove in the verses, but a ripping guitar riff and punk-style crashing drums in the chorus, the Coffman-led “The Socialites” chimes and bounces along with a twinkling agility, and the strained-but-accessible harmonies of “Gun Has No Trigger” will help the song sit comfortably next to “Stillness Is The Move” as a fervent singalong in their live set for years to come.

Dirty Projectors – Gun Has No Trigger

Returning to the TIME Magazine quote, despite my best efforts, I probably have not described Swing Lo Magellan in a way that does it justice, but that’s all the more reason to listen to it. Simply put, Longstreth has made a record that can only be fathomed through personal experience, which is more appropriate than ever. Even more impressive though, is the way that Longstreth presents his songs in such a abstract yet alluring manner. At no point is this album a clear confession or proclamation; rather, it’s a constantly interesting puzzle throughout. Swing Lo Magellan is a tribute to Longstreth’s powerful vision and creative fearlessness, but most of all, it’s a triumph of art over emotion; the individual’s expression over the feeling that inspired it.

You can listen to their recent session, live on KEXP from the Cutting Room Studios NYC here.

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