Review Summary: A brilliant blend of the outer limits and the down-to-earth.
For a decade now, Brooklyn-based experimental rockers Dirty Projectors have been providing an unconventional listening experience. Their penchant for throwing odd time signatures, thumping bass lines, mesmerizing vocals, and electronic elements into a blender and seeing what comes out the other side has yielded surprisingly consistent results – especially considering their brazen exploration of any and all things weird
. Their last effort, Bitte Orca
, was also one of their most well received. After developing some pop sensibilities to match their burgeoning experimental energy, their music became the perfect blend of what was interesting and what made sense. Thus, it should come as no surprise that their follow-up, 2012’s Swing Lo Magellan
, is another step in that direction. Here, Dirty Projectors are more direct than ever before, resulting in a sound that is finally as approachable as it is structurally explorative.
The key to their new found accessibility lies in the candidness of the lyrics, which are delivered with more clarity and emotion than ever before. It doesn’t take long to discover this with ‘Offspring Are Blank’ leading the charge, a track that possesses delicately constructed metaphors such as “your words were like raindrops from a storm in a vase” and effortlessly deep lines like “he was made to love her, she was made to love him.” In a way, the balance between complex and simple imagery keeps pace with Dirty Projector’s musical evolution – always branching out and looking to push the limit, yet still knowing when to rein things in. Compared to prior works, Swing Lo Magellan
really hones in on the band’s idealistic side, carving sentiments out of questions concerning love, life, fate, and “a world – crooked, fucked up and wrong.” The latter quote stems from the record’s echoing, crooning closer ‘Irresponsible Tune’ – a track that beckons for hope to arrive in the form of “a bird singing at my window”, but concedes that “it’s singing an irresponsible tune.” Whether it is carefully thought out passages such as this or straightforward declarations (“you’re my love, and I want you in my life”), Swing Lo Magellan
rings out with a sense of profound insight and romanticism. In the midst of Dirty Projectors’ meandering compositions, what they put down on paper evokes just as strong of a response as the music they play.
Oh yeah, the music
. While it’s true that Dirty Projectors have cleaned up their gritty sound, it doesn’t end up costing them their reputation. They are still recognizably unsettled, constantly seeking out new ways to drive their music onto unfamiliar terrain and, ultimately, to greater heights. “Accessible” qualities (I’m hesitant to call it pop) have been woven into their fabric, but they are still far from pervading. There is an excellent balance of male and female vocals, frantic bass lines, unpredictable tempos, crisp production versus more of a lo-fi approach, and – essentially – most of the things we’ve all come to love about Dirty Projectors. It’s not as
crazy or as
unorthodox as you might be used to, but the minor adjustments made to give Swing Lo Magellan
a sleeker sound are offset by the emergence of the aforementioned lyrical/vocal aspects, not to mention a surprising aptitude for conventional indie-rock. Some of the most impressive tracks actually come when the band leans entirely towards a sleeker, smoother sound. Just take ‘Impregnable Question’ for example; the song exists on a canvas consisting of nothing more than simple piano notes, a back-and-forth drum beat, and the occasional tambourine. Despite the basic instrumentation, the brilliant vocal harmonies put just the right amount of polish on the song to make it feel like a lustrous gem. ‘Unto Ceaser’ and ‘Irresponsible Tune’ follow suit, thriving mostly on melodic qualities while pushing experimentalism to the wayside. But fret not, because if Swing Lo Magellan
is two parts cleanliness, it is still three parts erratic and volatile. Most
of the songs here are bouncing ideas all over the place, from the wild drumming and frenzied verse-to-chorus changes in ‘About to Die’ to the random orchestral section in the middle of ‘Dance For You.’ There’s no shortage of bizarreness to pacify your inner hipster, even if the end result is an output that is relatively simple compared to their prior works.
It would be easy for listeners (especially long time fans) to disregard this album initially because it is Dirty Projector’s most contained effort. However, it would be a crime to make any rash judgments about an album that completes such an admirable transition. The band certainly doesn’t sound one hundred percent confident (or even comfortable) moving into more accessible territory, but their fidgetiness results in one of the most intriguing listens of the year. They aren’t ready to pack up their creative side yet (and thankfully they probably never will), giving us a brilliant blend of the outer limits and the down-to-earth. It’s a sensation that’s hard to get used to, but it feels great once you’ve grasped its magnitude.