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Music Review: Dirty Projectors’ Swing Lo Magellan Is Radical in Its Simplicity

Five years ago, Dirty Projectors were playing some of the few shows I’ve ever seen in which audiences were confused when it came to issues of basic musical process. The band was performing songs from Rise Above, on which leader Dave Longstreth had tried to rewrite a Black Flag album from memory, with results that sounded more like a perplexed reggae act, or maybe early Scritti Politti, than anything Black Flag ever recorded. At times, the music coming from the stage had a chaotic looseness to it, as if the band members might be improvising aimlessly around one another; parts of the audience would hear it as a formless wreck. At other times, it’d snap into a tricky focus, underlining something a little breathtaking: Underpinning the whole thing was some incredibly rigorous logic and symmetry, with parts so complexly knotted together that passing listeners might not even notice that there were many organizing principles, let alone be able to follow them. “It only sounds messy to you,” the whole thing seemed to say, “because you’re not very good at pattern recognition.”

Longstreth’s whole career with Dirty Projectors has flirted with lines like that — the points where complexity and chaos start to resemble each other, where a musician’s artistic language becomes unique enough to strike others as cryptic gibberish or a beautifully impenetrable puzzle. Since a decade ago, when he studied music at Yale, he’s averaged a record every year or so, working at the clip of an energetic obsessive: “Stories were told,” reported a 2009 feature in this magazine, “of how he slept in a crawlspace, worked eighteen hours a day on his music, and survived on spaghetti.”Around the same time, bandmate Amber Coffman was telling the New York Times about twelve-hour rehearsals and long sessions in a basement with a metronome.

The records he released weren’t as strange or forbidding as some reviews make them sound. They’re just piled improbably high with ideas, more than most listeners can be expected to track in any kind of transparent way. Some ideas were sonic: Longstreth finger-picked his electric guitar in rhythmically wobbly tangles; he wrote melodies in long, unpredictable, and generally un-hummable phrases; he sang them in a voice that was equal parts offhand warble and tough bleat. His arrangements combined the rickety amateurism of punk-inspired music with the eggheaded exactitude of a music scholar. At one point, the harmony vocals around him were best known for pulling techniques from fourteenth-century French choral singing. And then there were the concepts: weird parables, fantasias, and philosophical investigations in the lyrics; that album-length half-memory of Black Flag; or the “opera” that examined — as Longstreth explained in a letter to Don Henley — “the question of what is a wilderness in a world completely circumscribed by highways, once Manifest Destiny has no place to go.” The protagonist of that last record is named “Don Henley,” but is based, per that letter, on the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes, the Joyce character Stephen Dedalus, and Longstreth’s own brother. This is exactly the kind of far-flung idea-blending whose results are always going to turn out opaque and mysterious for listeners — rare is the fan or critic who can listen to such stuff and think, Ah yes, I see what you’re doing there.

It’s also exactly the kind of fearlessly off-beat, ambitious, self-directed, modernist artistic thinking the world tends to praise, but of course when I begin to Google “Dave Longstreth philosophy,” to see if he’s ever spoken about that aspect of his lyric-writing, the first thing the site suggests when I reach P is “Dave Longstreth pretentious,” with “pretentious” beating out Pitchfork, Phish, and Philips Andover Academy. Because the truth in modern pop is that listeners do like to be able to see what musicians are doing and wrap their heads around its details — hum its melodies, anticipate its rhythms, roll its sentiments around in their own mouths — and our high-modernist advice about artistic boldness comes with a long list of qualifying footnotes like “within reason” and “in moderation” and “only to the extent that we can understand what’s going on.” For years, enjoying Dirty Projectors seemed to involve loosening those expectations and just … listening.

It was the mild commercial breakthrough on 2009’s Bitte Orca that really started resolving that tension: This was the moment when the band, still speaking its own musical language, suddenly seemed to exist within the familiar outlines of pop songs. (Another way of putting this is that after a few listens to, say, “Stillness Is the Move,” you could more or less sing stretches of it yourself, from memory, no hours with a metronome required — and while other tunes might wrong-foot you with sudden yelps or gaps and fluctuations in their time signatures, you’d still have more than enough footing to feel thrown when it happened.) With the group’s latest, though — Swing Lo Magellan, released today — it ceases to seem like a tension at all. Judging by recent interviews, this was the album’s goal: to move away from thinking through ideas about songs and what could be done with them, and just make songs themselves.

Astonishingly simple songs, it turns out. Not always in terms of their composition: I’d hate to sit through the rehearsals required for “Maybe That Was It,” which keeps expanding and contracting against its tempo in ways that seem daunting to count out. The arrangements, though, are remarkably focused and restrained, to the point that many songs are sketched out by nothing more than clipped bass, drums, or handclaps, and wordless harmonies from Coffman and Haley Dekle to outline the chord structure — like the single, “Gun Has No Trigger,” which sounds like what might happen in the unlikely event that Dirty Projectors were asked to record a minimalist Bond theme. The production’s radically simplified, giving us an album as heard from a microphone’s point of view: Everything sounds wide open and still, all the instruments rendered in naturalistic close-ups. There’s much sixties-style stereo separation, the kind that will tuck the drums entirely in one speaker and a guitar on the other, letting everything hang in its own space instead of coalescing into one sound. The whole thing strikes the ear as comfortably as an old folk record; the opening of the title track actually sounds like something from the Velvet Underground’s first album, or, improbably, a Wes Anderson soundtrack.

I don’t intend the “radical” in “radically simplified” as hyperbole, either: At the moment, the bulk of this band’s indie, pop, and rock peers tend toward sonic maximalism, hazy impressionism, glassy synthetic tones, baroque orchestral arrangements, and countless other ways of building stylized facades around good old traditionalist songs. Swing Lo Magellan manages to come in from the opposite direction: The band’s developed such a store of odd techniques that they can write “simple” songs, record them with clean-lined purity, and still sound bewitchingly tricky. One track will have Longstreth’s singing with something like the regular, easy-to-remember phrasing of folk songs, over unadorned piano chords, and still carry something knotty and swerving inside it; another will be all complex interlocking tangles, but carry a sense, stronger than ever with this band, that the sounds you’re hearing are headed in a line to someplace particular.

Longstreth’s said the album is less concept-driven than some of its predecessors, but one has to wonder if that, like the songs’ simplicity, might be a very relative judgment. If any album in the group’s catalogue has something to say about the ideas of wilderness and Manifest Destiny, it’d seem to be this one: There’s many a metaphor built on venturing westward into the unknown, like the Portuguese explorer of the title — many a line about traveling and questing through things, in search of something as yet unclear. It contains a streak of American folk music that conjures up fresh, open spaces—straight through to the album closer, “Irresponsible Tune,” which is built around a high-lonesome, campfire-on-the-prairie guitar strum. It has a tender, seeking quality, one that puts it among the most straightforwardly beautiful albums of the year so far. That seeking quality is a funny thing, though. For most listeners, this is a band that’s questing out into the open; it’s a band that’s coming slowly toward the center, bringing with it a lot of captivating ideas honed somewhere out in the hinterlands.

Photo: Dirty Projectors/Facebook