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The buzz surrounding the Dirty Projectors latest album Swing Lo Magellan, which follows 2009’s Bitte Orca, is that it is the band’s attempt at an album that is more accessible to audiences. The main result is that many of the songs are laid back and toned down. However, Swing Lo Magellan lacks songs that are as instantly catchy and standout as tracks from Bitte Orca, such as “No Intention” and “Stillness Is The Move”. Still, the elements that have become typical of their style that the band retained in this album are numerous: irregular time signatures, delicate yet bolstering backup vocals, and lyrics that the listener must ponder and examine.
The dozen songs on the Brooklyn experimental band’s sixth studio album were selected from 40 demos, which began as nearly 70 songs written by lead singer David Longstreth at a house in upstate New York. Across the album are several instances of a less cryptic approach to songwriting, but in “Impregnable Question”, the lines “I need you/ And you’re always on my mind” and the repeated “You’re my love/ And I need you in my life” at the end feel like a rip-off in comparison to the abstruseness of the title.
It turns out that whomever Longstreth is singing to here got the short end of the love song stick, as it were; The muse of the other love song, “Irresponsible Tune”, is music itself. “Irresponsible Tune” is an ambling, simple song with reverberating vocals in which Longstreth ruminates, “But without songs we’re lost/ And life is painful, harsh, and long” and the track holds up as more thoughtful than “Impregnable Question”.
“Offspring Are Blank” is a strong opener with its many varying yet cohesive parts. The song goes from humming and handclapping to a hip-hop beat and vocal harmonies, and soon enough, in tears the first guitar part with Longstreth brazenly declaring “He was made to love her!” in a way that sounds like he just rode up on a steed with a golden scepter in his hand. Then there’s the wonderfully eerie “Maybe That Was It”, the lopsided, limping beast hurtling along with tormented cymbals and droopy guitar. Longstreth plays with the flow and sequencing of syllables and words and the placing of his rhymes in “About To Die”, and rattles off lines like “If the search has been long and futile and brutal/ And if you squint trying to reconnect the bosom of your hood rum love”. He then goes on to contemplate evil and cruel truths along with mutants, zombies, and goblins (Oh my!).
A small complaint: it takes five-sixths of the album for guitarist Amber Coffman to gain the lead vocals in “The Socialites” (aside from her intro to “Just From Chevron”), and then her confectionery voice retreats to the “oooh’s” and “aaah’s” of backup vocals for the remaining two songs. But there are plenty of other highlights to keep things fresh and interesting, like the opening strings and the thick, robust saxophones in “Unto Caesar”, and perhaps most notably the unique and varied guitar parts throughout that range from folky to avant-garde.