Beyond the aughts-era duality of retromania and neophilia, Longstreth has found the beautiful, generous simplicity of the heart and soul. Same as it ever was. And this must be exactly the place where he's planted the seeds for his band's finest album to date.
"It's an album of songs, an album of songwriting," says Longstreth.
Another reinvention in a career defined by reinvention, Swing Lo Magellan does what no Dirty Projectors album has done before: it's about songs. Few songwriters can pull off the challenge to write as simple and direct as possible, and fewer still can do it and be left with something that feels irreducibly personal and idiosyncratic. Swing Lo Magellan gives us twelve such songs, one after another.
The album contains some of the biggest choruses of the band's career (the explosive and anthemic Offspring Are Blank and Unto Caesar), as well as some of simplest and most disarming (the closer Irresponsible Tune). Gun Has No Trigger is a fever dream of ecstatic paranoia, while Dance For You is a song of searching, spiritual depth ("in the language of Gyptian and Ligeti," Longstreth suggests). The tender love declared in Impregnable Question would have resonated in any musical era of the last hundred years. The title track Swing Lo Magellan is a gorgeous lament to the night sky. Amber Coffman's solo turn on The Socialites adds a compelling new layer to her persona. Each of these songs is a world unto itself – one that can be explored endlessly. Indeed, Swing Lo Magellan feels so unique in the context of much of today's music because it is more about its content than about its frame and reference. It's more heart than sleeve.
Dirty Projectors was formed in 2003 by David Longstreth, using the moniker to release wildly imaginative albums spanning guitar-based experimental song, scored composition, electronic music, hardcore, and medieval vocal polyphony. The early years of the band featured an evolving cast of musicians, eventually solidifying around Longstreth (vocals & guitar), Amber Coffman (vocals & guitar), Nat Baldwin (bass), Angel Deradoorian (vocals and keyboard) and Brian McOmber (drums). Haley Dekle (vocals) joined in 2009. 2009's Bitte Orca was Dirty Projectors' breakout moment, landing them on almost every Album of the Year list in the country and bringing them to five continents over two years. 2009 saw the band collaborating with David Byrne and The Roots, appearing on Late Show with David Letterman and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, as well as playing myriad club shows and international festivals. In 2010, the band collaborated with Björk on the Mount Wittenberg Orca EP, which generated over $60,000 for a National Geographic endeavor to preserve wild ocean reefs. They also presented the 2005 album The Getty Address with 20-piece chamber ensemble Alarm Will Sound at Lincoln Center in New York, the Barbican in London and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA, as well as selling out New York's 3000-cap Terminal 5. At the dawn of 2011, Longstreth began writing songs for the band's next LP.
The songs of Swing Lo Magellan are culled from a sprawling twelve months of constant writing and recording in a weird house in Delaware County, New York (four hours northwest of the city). Longstreth, who produced and mixed, wrote seventy new songs and beats. The band—Amber Coffman (vocals & guitar), Nat Baldwin (bass), Brian McOmber (drums) & Haley Dekle (vocals) – often joined him, rehearsing the new music more or less constantly in the house's A-frame attic. (Vocalist Angel Deradoorian is on hiatus). The twelve songs of Swing Lo Magellan were winnowed down from about forty finished demos. The finished recordings bear the impress of this informal working style: the album is a collection of moments: accidental, fortuitous, spontaneous. The performances feel warm and imperfect. Unguarded intimacy is somewhat of a new look for this band, and it turns out it's a very good look.
The sound of this album is totally unique—with an aesthetic that explodes in two directions at once. The grain of the voices and live-in-the-room quality of the amps contrast the rich orchestral layering of Longstreth's arrangements for contemporary ensemble yMusic, the warmth of the bass and the sheen and blast of the beat programming.
Swing Lo Magellan is an album that comes from the hearts of one of the most fearlessly cerebral bands of the last ten years. The album has both the handmade intimacy of a love letter and the widescreen grandeur of a blockbuster, and if that sounds like a paradox—it's because it was until now.