The achievement of Dirty Projectors’ latest album, Swing Lo Magellan, is borne of mastermind Dave Longstreth’s desire to make a mess and tidy it up at the same time: The further he reaches with his music, the more careful he is to reinforce its foundation. He’s like the world’s finest Jenga player. And all those misshapen, sticking-out blocks are the highlight of his take on indie prog — knotty and labyrinthine, the contours and impossibilities of a miraculous tower that’s somehow still standing.
On past records, including 2007’s critical favorite Rise Above and 2009’s breakout Bitte Orca, he pushed everything as far as it could go: his own untrained yelp, the shrill-to-angelic voices of various female singers, his time-signature mood swings, and the unduplicated guitar pirouettes whose only remote parallels in pop are non-Western. This often caused the tower to crash and fall, to the delight of many. Others only became intrigued by Longstreth’s attempts at discipline, most notably Bitte Orca’s Amber Coffman-sung (and Solange Knowles-covered) “Stillness Is the Move,” which made Longstreth’s prog-auteur explorations accessible with an R&B melody not just worthy of a Knowles sister, but plain-spoken imagery of a highway diner waitress that stopped just short of asking, “Well…how did I get here?” (Not surprisingly, David Byrne himself joined the fun on 2009’s mutually beneficial Dark Was the Night compilation highlight “Knotty Pine.”)
The guy’s full of surprises. If Longstreth ever gets bored writing a piece of music, he probably just recomposes it backwards, inside-out, and upside-down, then reshapes the wavering middle until the end result is completely unrecognizable. Fascinating to some, off-putting and inhuman to others. He’s touting Magellan as his “song album,” yup. But naturally, you’ve never heard songs like these, the way the indeed somewhat clearer tunes rub against distracting sonics — take the ping-pong match on “See What She Seeing,” an infinite loop that turns out to be a manipulation of fingers tapping on the wood of a guitar. That track plays so loose with its own rhythm that the effect is like sandbags constantly threatening to unspool from the stage curtain. There’s no clear, rhythm-defined IDM subgenre to point to here — Mount Kimbie’s pops and clicks are the closest available referent — but whatever it is, you haven’t heard anything like it in a pop tune since the laptops of “Kid A” galloped away. But Radiohead’s wasn’t a love song, whereas Longstreth’s object of affection here is said to “sift through the days patient and carefully,” and her “hair is whipping.” When Coffman’s honey-dipped voice drops in, she brings a twist: “But you can’t see me.” Coffman is the longtime emulsifier to Longstreth’s oil-and-water dynamics, and because Swing steps up his sophistication, she’s called on not just to ensure his melodies a safe landing, but to lend them a welcome humor. When “Unto Caesar” starts listing into lyrical bullshit (“We’re the weapon chancellors” or “We’re the high custodian”) she dutifully echoes his words until she can no longer stand it: “Uh, that doesn’t make any sense, what you just said.”
Maybe the nicest thing about Magellan is that, for once, the female singers (Coffman and Haley Dekle; longtime member Angel Deradoorian sat this one out) buttress Longstreth, rather than rescuing him from the car wreck of his own voice. Several vocal highlights here belong to him, especially a gorgeous run in “About to Die” that we might chalk up to his love of country star Eric Church’s amazingly fluid “Homeboy.” Longstreth’s grunting on oil-spill blues “Just From Chevron” doesn’t exactly match James Brown’s, but the sudden turn into Americana only augments the weirdness. And the quietly stunning single “Gun Has No Trigger” is a minor-key aberration that’s nevertheless what this album is all about: a maximalist thinking minimal and still ending up with a huge sound.
No one else in the Brooklyn indie scene has the chops for this kind of dry production right now, free of soupy reverb and preset-sounding programming. Instruments treated and warped into unrecognizability vie with elements that don’t need questioning: loads of humanity in the voices and lyrics, steam-cleaned guitars, strings that take half a dozen listens to notice, crisp if sideways percussion. Every noise is fully realized and distinct, even the ones you can’t identify.
What you won’t miss on Swing Lo Magellan are the band’s once-typical, mid-song jumps into a whole other thought — a prog holdout that’s incinerated good ideas by everyone from Incubus to Fiery Furnaces. If Longstreth was really so fascinated with Afropop guitar styles, he had to learn how to settle into a groove at some point, right? Steadying the rhythms allows him to get weird in more digestible ways, like how “Maybe That Was It” simulates a duel of axes between Isaac Brock and Eric Clapton.
Yet calling this album straightforward feels ridiculous. Moments like the brief arena-hero guitar solo on “Offspring Are Blank” flirt with capital-R “Rawk,” but hardly scuff Ted Nugent’s hunting shoes. And if “Stillness Is the Move” entranced some Mariah Carey fans, wait until Prince fanatics hear “Impregnable Question,” which rewrites “Starfish & Coffee,” and actually boasts more coherent lyrics than the original. Which, as it happens, are some of the mostly plainly sweet words of this band’s long, oft-inscrutable career: “You’re my love and I want you in my life.”
Okay, so that’s pretty straightforward. Swing Lo Magellan is about Longstreth searching for “the kind of silence that can swallow sound,” his roundabout way of desiring more and overthinking less. It’s a far more comforting concept than we’re used to from him, but still far from predictable: The Dirty Projectors’ best album by a mile holds that balance, all magnificent wobble, no collapse.