Dirty Projectors are an art-rock band that has consistently gravitated more towards art than rock. On 2007’s “Rise Above,” the band recreated Black Flag’s “Damaged” entirely from memory, reaching almost performance-art levels of gimmickry. And their 2009 breakthrough, “Bitte Orca,” was just as much a piece of artwork—an iridescent, shimmering sonic painting—as it was an indie rock album.
However, on “Swing Lo Magellan,” their sixth studio album, Dirty Projectors head in the opposite direction. The album sounds less like a work of art and more like a collection of songs, and as it turns out, that shift suits the Dirty Projectors just fine. “Swing Lo Magellan” is Dirty Projector’s most accessible album yet, and they’ve sacrificed none of the thoughtful weirdness that characterized their previous releases.
Bandleader Dave Longstreth reveals himself on this album as a singer-songwriter who revels in constructing perfectly likeable rock songs and then pulling the legs out from under them. “Dance For You,” the album’s sixth track, opens with simple handclaps over a swooning guitar line and contains some of Longstreth’s most straightforward and accessible lyrics to date: “There is an answer / I haven’t found it, but I will keep dancing ’til I do.” The song continues rather uneventfully until about halfway through, when an orchestra suddenly forces its way through the snares and guitar, punching an atonal hole in the song’s otherwise simple harmonies and crescendoing to an almost unbearable volume before vanishing into thin air. The handclaps and guitar return as if nothing ever happened.
This kind of playful destructiveness could easily come across as annoying, unnecessary, and self-indulgent, but Dirty Projectors toe the line expertly. On “Unto Caesar,” as Longstreth’s lyrics get progressively more oblique (“Down the line, down the mercenary Barbary / Down the line, down the martyrs’ morbid poetry”), vocalist Amber Coffman breaks the fourth wall and says, “Uh, that doesn’t make any sense, what you just said.” For Dirty Projectors’ detractors, this aside is just more of Longstreth’s insufferable pretension. But considering the band’s shift towards a more immediate sound, this aside comes across as a humorous bit of self-effacement—necessary, even, considering the band’s sometimes knotty reputation.
Elsewhere on the album, wobbly arrangements couple with straightforward yet compelling lyrics, to create songs that take multiple listens to reveal their layers. Coffman’s solo feature “The Socialites” opens with a lopsided kick drum and an agile guitar riff. The lyrics play like an internal dialogue. She starts by fawning over the glitterati with lines like, “I think she’s the prettiest lady I’ve ever seen / Her hair, it has meaning and volume and such a sheen.” But by the end of the song, she’s repulsed by their emptiness: “I’m glad they’re the ones on the other side of the glass / Who knows what my spirit is worth in cold, hard cash?”
There isn’t a track on the album that gets stale. “About to Die” tells a Tolstoyan tale of mortality and depression; Coffman and vocalist Haley Dekle parrot Longstreth’s lines, serving as the Greek muses to his tragic hero. It’s all very sophisticated, but it’ll also be stuck in your head for days. “See What She Seeing” has a seasick-stumble guitar riff and spasmodic percussion reminiscent of clattering rocks, but its lyrics are those of a simple love song.
The highlight of the album is “Gun Has No Trigger,” perhaps the best song the band has ever produced. Longstreth’s lyrics, which address from a modern perspective the complex horrors of conformity and suicide, are difficult but compelling. Coffman and Dekle’s oohs float over the drumbeat like ominous ghosts. The tense verses would lend themselves well to an explosive chorus, but instead all Coffman and Dekle provide is a burst of harmony and throbbing bass. It’s a claustrophobic, tightly wound, thoroughly enjoyable three minutes.
The line between tunefulness and experimentation is a treacherous tightrope for any band to walk. With “Swing Lo Magellan,” Dirty Projectors prove that it’s possible to go from an obscure art-rock outfit to one of the indie rock world’s premiere acts without compromising the things that keep them interesting. For a band who delight in knocking things off-balance, Dirty Projectors walk the tightrope astonishingly well.
—Staff writer Matthew Watson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.