ALBUM REVIEW: Swing Lo Magellan by the Dirty Projectors

07/06/2012 08:49 am ET | Updated Sep 05, 2012

I often find myself getting way too nostalgic for 2009. Blame it on a Miniver Cheevy or Midnight in Paris complex, but I can't help but get lost in the masturbatory think-pieces and year-end lists that defined the year that made it cool to know to music theory and have a textbook optical illusion as your desktop background. But looking back, the question arises: Out of all the bands who defined this 2009 hype wave, which has/will age the best?

Albums like Merriweather Post Pavilion, Veckatimest and Bitte Orca feel so crystalized in the blogosphere of that specific year. With the former two of those bands still teasing their highly anticipated follow-up records, it's impossible to tell. But if you asked me that question in '09, I would have without pause answered in favor of the Dirty Projectors. Not because they were pumping out some timeless sound -- on the contrary, Bitte Orca couldn't have been made in any era other than the one it remains ambered in -- but because the brilliant, wild musical mind of the band, David Longstreth, seemed insane and inventive enough to constantly push the group's sonic boundaries for decades to come. However, on the group's newest album, Swing Lo Magellan, the results of the progression are mixed; it's a pretty good record, but a change in production and tone makes this album a slightly less daring, grabbing listen, and instead of making up for it by pushing further into more cerebral territory, the Dirty Projectors shoot for something a bit more accessible and fall a little short. But the band is still flipping pop songs on their back-sides in a fun and smart way, which is fine by me.

There are a few major shifts on this album, some more noticeable than others. First of all, Angel Deradoorian, one of three female background singers whose purling chirps and hocketing have helped so well define the idiosyncratic Dirty Projectors sound, is missing from the recording of Swing Lo Magellan. It's unclear whether Angel left of her own accord or if Longstreth sent her marching straight out the Deradoorian, but either way, the bands' Angel-less eighth album sees a strange shift in narrative tone -- Dave sounds a lot more confident as a frontman than he has on past records. That's not to say that he has wallowed in diffidence in the past though: especially on Bitte Orca and Rise Above, Longstreth proved himself to be one of the bravest, strangest band leaders on the block, launching songs like "Useful Chamber" or "Depression" into wildly raucous climaxes. The change here could lie in production -- when Longstreth went berserk on those songs, the mix rose with him, but here his vocals slither right around the top of the mix -- or in an odd new sense of humor that really comes through on this record.

Longstreth's newfangled confidence also manifests in a few deep investigations into the world of R&B on certain tracks. The album starts off with "Offspring Are Blank," a swaggering mutant soul song with a hip-hop beat that seems to be describing an inextinguishable love between an eagle and a snake, not to mention the genetic issues that accompany such an affair. Imagine Aaliyah reading an aliyah from the Torah, then we're somewhere in the territory of the first 45 seconds of this track. The album's lead single, "Gun Has No Trigger," also rides over a backing beat pulled from the Timbaland playbook then dressed up like a Talking Head.

"Trigger" has to be one of the weakest songs on the record -- what compelled the band to push it as a single is beyond me. It sounds like a lackluster, deflated theme to a Bond movie. "Dance for You," Magellan's second single, fares much better. Far and away the record's catchiest moment, the song is built on the clear acoustic guitar, clean vocal reverb and hand-clap percussion that sonically defines a good portion of the album, but also features some nice baroque swells and some fuzzy yet restrained dueling guitar action. "Dance for You" seems to be this record's "Stillness is the Move," although the production stays distinct from the afro-art-pop R&B of that 2009 Coffman-led summer jam, it pushes a similar message of self-discovery and empowerment.

Other memorable moments include "Maybe That Was It," which -- contrary to popular belief -- is not a Strokes diss, but rather a fascinating amnesiac callback that provides by far the album's darkest moment, and "Just From Chevron," which features some cute patty-cake polyrhythms and harmonies and structure that are distinctly Dirty Projectors. We also get a nice Longstreth brand ejaculation of (excuse my spelling on this one) "eeauunghuh!" at 1:55.

The Dirty Projectors' lyrics usually stray toward the more abstract side of the spectrum, but the second side of Magellan features some surprisingly straightforward love songs. The adjacent "Impregnable Question" and "See What She See" are two sides of the same coin -- it's almost like Longstreth rewrote "The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock" once with either side of his brain. The former takes shape as a straight-up crooning strummer with lyrics as simple as "Although we don't always see eye to eye/ I need you and you're always on my mind," which are weirdly charming coming from a mind as strange and saturated with vocabulary as Longstreths, while the latter pulses around a wonky, disorienting synthetic beat. Oddly enough, the notoriously eccentric songwriter comes off much more sincere on the first of the pair. Has Longstreth gone soft? Or, dare I say, undemanding? Winston, bring me my fainting couch, please.

I find myself having kind of a tough time taking the Dirty Projectors seriously on this album, and having an even tougher time of figuring out whether that is their intention or not. For years I've had friends dismiss the band as absurd experimentalists, who always take the strangest possible route for vocal arrangement and song structure -- a claim I've never personally humored, sometimes even standing up for the gang in the face of these dismissive bullies -- but Magellan hosts moments during which I can't help but question whether the band is kind of just screwing around. The verses of "About to Die," for example, move into pulls-collar-check-please territory when the background vocals come in with these silly ad libs of "hey baby" after the line "try to recall the bosom of your hoodlum love" and a painfully faked laugh by Longstreth after he describes "a vandal laughing into his hood." This brings up a sort of disorienting contradiction -- does the band want us to seriously ponder the song's abstract and vivid lyrics, or chuckle uncomfortably at its hype-man interjections?

That brings up an issue as old as culture -- when does humor have a place in music? Listen, I'm not some strict divisional separatist: it's not like every record is either an Ágætis Byrjun or a Dare to Be Stupid. Some of the best albums of all time, for example, work by Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa and the Feelies, have found that happy medium between silly and sincere. But is it too much to ask for to want my art-pop with a furrowed brow? Maybe the playful (albeit forced) recording banter on "Unto Ceasar" is admirable; it's cool that musical architects as respected as the Dirty Projectors intentionally let the listener in on their very human studio kick-back sessions. Yet there's something there that serious detracts from my connection to the album, which could totally be the fault of my approach in evaluating. Anyways, who cares! Listen to it, form an opinion, would you?