Dirty Projectors are the best kind of experimental rock band — the kind that’s constantly growing and changing, but always with spectacular results and never in quite the way you might have predicted. Their sixth album, Swing Lo Magellan, is the culmination of a second act that began with 2006′s New Attitude EP, when frontman and songwriter David Longstreth first explored African- and South American-inspired rhythms and multi-layered vocal harmonies.
The record that followed, 2007′s Rise Above, seemed at the time like a strange experiment: Longstreth (who already had a concept album about Don Henley under his belt) attempted to reconstruct Black Flag’s entire 1981 album, Damaged, from memory, despite not having heard it for 15 years. But when Dirty Projectors’ massively popular, critically worshiped Bitte Orca appeared two years later, it became clear that along with being an exercise in memory and influence and reinterpretation, Rise Above was an opportunity for Longstreth to let content take a back seat to form, recruiting a trio of female vocalists and sculpting their voices to create dramatic textures. Bitte Orca’s innovation was bringing that sound, pioneered on New Attitude, to maturity — blowing it up to stadium-pop proportions, polishing its expansive surface to gleaming perfection, and pairing it with lyrics that complemented the music’s exuberance (“Yeah, I wanna / Remake the horizon”) and transcendence (“Isn’t life under the sun just a crazy, crazy, crazy dream? / Isn’t life just a mirage of the world before the world?”).
In an interview around the time of Bitte Orca’s release, Longstreth told me, “I like to not do what I did immediately before.” But before I heard Swing Lo Magellan, it was difficult to imagine how Dirty Projectors could move forward with a style they had already perfected. The answer, it turns out, was to embrace the rough and weird moments that can make imperfect music so much more compelling.
As Longstreth recently told Pitchfork, “Bitte Orca was this collection of really bright, iridescent surfaces, and this one is more like unbleached fucking leather, or untreated wood that’s warping in the elements. We did that on purpose.” This atmosphere of naturalness and freedom is palpable from the album’s first moments, when “Offspring Are Blank” opens with slow handclaps and slightly goofy Kermit the Frog-style humming. In Longstreth’s world, every sound is a decision, and those few seconds before the women chime in prettily with the band’s signature “ooh”s and “ahh”s are as much a statement of what’s to come as the swooping, chiming guitars that open Bitte Orca.
The next shock comes only a minute later, when a supercharged current of electric guitar rips through those “ooh”s and the dull throb of percussion. This is the sound of a band breaking its own rules, ecstatically, with the same energy that suffused Dirty Projectors’ performance in Prospect Park Tuesday. A band that once worked like a machine looked as refreshingly loose as Longstreth’s newly shoulder-length hair. They even roughed up the pristine Bitte Orca songs, making “Cannibal Resource” noisily chaotic and dragging “Stillness Is the Move” back down to earth.
Swing Lo Magellan provides no shortage of polyphonic pleasure — it’s an evolution, not a revolution, in the band’s sound — but where Bitte Orca’s most beautiful moments happened at the culmination of an immaculate crescendo, it’s the quiet and off-kilter elements that resonate here. While “Unto Caesar” might have become a shimmering showstopper in 2009, this year it’s full of spare verses in “Mr. Tambourine Man”-style sing-song and spoken interjections from band members (“That doesn’t make any sense, what you just said”). From another band, it might feel like a novelty, but Dirty Projectors never lean on gimmickry. The self-aware interruptions only add an endearing vulnerability to the fully realized song. Elsewhere on Swing Lo Magellan, the title track’s gentle folk balladry, the warmhearted cooing of “Impregnable Question,” and the clapping-and-searching vibe of “Dance for You” all take a few listens to reveal their charms, but once they do, you’ll want to lock yourself in a room with your stereo and sink into the album for days at a time.
The lyrics on Swing Lo Magellan also reward careful attention. Far more specific and, apparently, heartfelt than the ones on either Dirty Projectors’ concept albums or Bitte Orca, the album’s imagery oscillates between comforting and unsettling. First single “Gun Has No Trigger” has all the emotional acuity and surreal impotence of an anxiety dream: “If you just had looked / But now the banks all closed / And nothing gets bigger / The crowd will yell / But the gun has no trigger.” Equally uncanny — and unnerving, is “Offspring Are Blank,” with its mythological tone and allusions. It’s sort of a love song, but there’s no escaping the astonishing strangeness and bleakness of, “In the marriage of eagle and snake / The parents are fertile but the offspring is blank.”
Even the sweetest love songs acknowledge imperfection. “We don’t see eye to eye / But I need you, and you’re always on my mind,” Longstreth sings on “Impregnable Question.” On that track’s album-closing cousin-by-grammar, “Irresponsible Tune,” he croons, “With our songs, we are outlawed / With our songs, we’re alone / But without songs we’re lost / And life is pointless, harsh, and long.” Honesty is at the forefront of Swing Lo Magellan, and what often comes through is the troubled acceptance of a wholly worthwhile existence without easy answers.