Swing Lo Magellan - The Latest Work From Dirty Projectors
Dave Longstreth of Dirty Projectors isn’t a plain and simple songwriter, by any stretch: his melodies often fly off frantically in all directions in both whines and whispers; his rhythms occasionally cleave against each other or challenge any sense of symmetry; he frequently picks more notes on a guitar string than should seemingly fit into a single beat. On previous Dirty Projectors’ albums, these complexities were certainly interesting, but somewhat disjointed. The song structures in Longstreth’s writing were largely undeveloped or ignored, with motifs transitioning without much regard for their overall unity. Swing Lo Magellan succeeds by giving this experimental chaos a real direction. On this album, Longstreth and fellow Dirty Projectors members run their intricate ideas through a pop filter and produce a series of accessible and refined songs, without compromising their progressiveness.
The album passes through a series of phases or moods, with clean arrangements and lyrical coherence still allowing us to follow this progression like we follow a good narrative. A single off-meter clap and winding octave-doubled hum suggest a dark and foreboding place on “Offspring Are Blank”. The first line, “There was a single one, then there where ten, ten made a hundred and a hundred million,” sung over a diminished, middle eastern-influenced melody, conjures a haunting image of the beginning of the world; haunting in that it projects the decrepit future of humankind. Longstreth shows us that the quality of life and love in every new generation is decaying, that “the parents are fertile, but the offspring is blank.” At the refrain, when he yells, “He was made to love her, she was made to love him,” he attacks this notion of destined love with hard rock irony suited for a depressed modern outlook. Before finally brightening and resurfacing, the shadowy atmosphere plunges deeper into confusion and death on “About to Die” and “Gun Has No Trigger”.
On “About to Die”, the string hits and classic R&B melody contrast the lyrics, which describe an immense feeling of isolation and misunderstanding of identity. From looking into the mirror and seeing a zombie, “staring, vacant, and glaring, pronouncing your name, Longstreth brings us to the edge of a suicide in “Gun Has No Trigger.” This tune, the album’s single, puts Longstreth’s wails at the forefront amidst the minimal and crisp drum track and backing vocals. Over potent minor chords, he urges his subject to look deeper at life before pulling the trigger. He tells the gun holder, “You’d see a million colors” and “you’d be no one’s coward;” he tells the zombie in the mirror that he is missing something that could potentially solve his depression. Longstreth takes us to the brink of this suicide, only to discover that the subject can’t escape his condition, because the “gun has no trigger.”
At the title track, the heavy darkness lets up and we find ourselves on top of the water, sailing toward uncharted land. This change is a welcome relief, with a lightly tapping groove pushing us forward like a soft wind that fills a sail, and a classic two chord major vamp brightly shimmering on guitar strings like sun flecks. Here, at the warm center of the album, we hear the new maturity of Longstreth’s lyric writing, in his success at, as he says, writing “songs that were about stuff – to try to make things more coherent” (Interviews: Dirty Projectors. Pitchfork Media. 2 July 2012). Much like a good folksinger, he endeavors to tell a made-up story with absolute sincerity. “Swing Lo Magellan”, with its simple and sweet melody line, follow a navigator to undiscovered land, where he justifies conquering the wilderness, and realizes his mistake and his blindness too late. Longstreth captures the poignancy of this reflection in the final line of the tune: “I saw my frame in a pool of light, all drowned in doubt and shame. I knew that I had lost my sight.”
This clean and coherent storytelling works its way into the next song, “Just From Chevron”, which portrays a man dying in an oil spill and his last words for his wife. In the gasping resilience of the refrain “I swear I will be live”, the dying man makes several keen observations about the world that build off of the protagonist’s realization in “Swing Lo Magellan.” When he says “All of my friends, my enemies too, live in the shadows of the dirtiest fuel. Burns the land and its paper to ruin, while wind’s always whistling an infinite tune,” he shows us the result of arresting the wilderness in the manner of the navigator. Like “Swing Lo Magellan”, the story ends in a nice neat fashion, with the now dead man returning to his “knell in the hill.” This mood of bittersweet brightness and these simple stories soon make way for a brief relapse on the album.
The beginning of “Maybe That Was It” is jarring, to say the least. The asymmetrical rhythm phrase forced out of the guitar brings back darker times from the beginning of the album. The cymbal pulse never quite clicks into place with the melody, and it is clear that something is ajar and battered. The hypotheticals, “If you saw the surface rip and bloom with rot” and “if you saw a shadow rise beyond the hiss” recall Longstreth’s foreshadowing of a decaying present. The phrase, “maybe that was it” gives us the sense that whatever opportunity we had to renew and restart has passed. All we can do now is look back from where we came and speculate.
“Impregnable Question”, a pleasant and steady ballad with a Motown bass line, poses a counter argument to pull us out of the gloom of “Maybe That Was It”. In the face of all of this uncertainty, Longstreth tells us “it would help to seek comfort in destiny,” as if to say, what happened, happened – now move on. On top of this, he suggests that a meaningful love can salvage the sort of fragmented and depressed life that he describes at the beginning of the album.
He furthers this philosophy on “See What She Seeing”, over a slowly escalating structure and an intricately textured percussion part. In the song, he finally understands his own identity when he looks at his reflection in the eyes of his ideal woman, but he maintains that this is merely an ideal, when he says “So onward through the murk and the uncertainty, sifting through the days patient and carefully, always to go where she is.” Longstreth grounds us in reality, searching and hoping for a redemptive love.
The end of the album provides a smattering of philosophical questions. “The Socialites,” sung by Amber Coffman, portrays a woman looking through a glass window at members of the upper class. The Nintendo-extracted guitar picking sound gives way to synth swells at the chorus, as she sings “The socialites, who act so nice, won’t ever begin to let you in.” In this way, the tune asks if it is better to accept and assimilate into the luxurious façade of the upper crust or to look in bitterly from the outside. Or better yet, it asks: “Who knows what my spirit is worth in cold hard cash?”
“Unto Caesar” revisits the idea of conquest and marching forward on land or in life without regret or hesitation, as Longstreth sings triumphantly in the line Innocent or innocent enough to say I did what I did, I did what I did. Only win, done, unto Caesar.” The descending horn line in the chorus compliments this heroic shamelessness, while we mull over the morality of his statement. The album’s last song, “Irresponsible Tune”, an unsettled lullaby, looks at the mutually exclusive relationship between isolation and understanding. Longstreth explains that though songs cast us as irresponsible in the eyes of the masses, they are the only tools by which we make sense of an uncertain and messy world. Bob Dylan could have just as easily written the final line of this album, which goes “Will there be peace in the world or will vile winds always own the truth? There’s a bird singing at my window, and it’s singing an irresponsible tune.” It’s horribly open-ended, and it needs an answer from the subjective listener. We feel like our understanding of the world is riding on our conclusion to this tune and this album.
Swing Lo Magellan is not streamlined by one theme, but rather connected by each individual song’s remarkable effectiveness. This album works in the same way that The Beatles’ White Album works. It is a collection of tastefully arranged instrumentals and micro-narratives, like a book of short stories rather than a novel. The songs can stand alone, yet they go so nicely together. The album is a collage, and out of all of its independent pieces, the imaginative mind starts to see connections, the flexible theoretical threads that make for a larger picture. Dave Longstreth and his band sweep us through this series of moods, this collection of stories, not hoping to sell us on one universal answer, but instead to teach us a number of lessons that, when we zoom out, connect quite well.
Enjoy the trailer for Hi Custodian – Longstreth’s film featuring music from Dirty Projectors’ Swing Lo Magellan.