The golden quartet consisting of Grizzly Bear, The xx, Animal Collective, and Dirty Projectors set the standard for thinking-man’s pop in 2009... and they'll do it again in 2012. The starting gun has been fired by the band led by David Longstreth, a man who knows all too well how much the world has changed over the past three years. Their seventh album features Magellan in its title, and it could therefore be used as a compass, both for the public to orient themselves and for the band itself to redefine coordinates and adjust its position as explorers of art-pop. Clear and concise, “Swing Lo Magellan” looks at the open horizons glimpsed in “Bitte Orca”, stressing the softness brought forth on that album with tracks like “Two Doves”, and it turns out to be their most tender, courteous work to date. A record full of life on which, as they say in the fabulous “Gun Has No Trigger”, you'll see an infinity of colours if you pay close enough attention.
Vibrant, albeit somewhat ascetic compared to its predecessors, this new full-length finally allows us to call Dirty Projectors accessible. It's their “song” album, lifting the weight of narrative concepts off the band's shoulders, like dedicating an LP to Don Henley, or revising a Black Flag record, in favour of something simpler. Selected from a list of 70, its 12 songs have already been compared to “White Album” and Dylan's “John Wesley Harding”, because of their degreasing effects. They are free of any density and feature only the bare essentials. Dry handclaps that make the tracks sound like dead leaves rather than flesh-eating flowers, and the voice, consolidated both in the foreground and the background, with those female back-up vocals creating layers, and with Longstreth's voice gaining in expressiveness.
It's a new aesthetic order, seemingly influenced by their recent collaborations with David Byrne and Björk (wonderful specialists when it comes to twisting the arty without losing the public's attention), and also by Angel Deradoorian having left, which meant that the usually intricate rhythmic swarming, textures and arrangements were subdued by the melodic hooks. There's no need for alarm, though. “Swing Lo Magellan” still maintains Longstreth's exoticness and originality. It's different from their other efforts, there's more rhythmic trotting than fortuitous tripping, but it never sounds unrecognisable. And when has a Dirty Projectors album not sounded different from the previous one, anyway? Their main characteristics are ironclad (guitars intertwining, tight structures, vocal cascades, and spiral melodies), but the songs follow oblong patterns that are easy to remember and to hum, revealing influences that had been veiled until now, like the omnipresent Beatles, Led Zeppelin (“Offspring Are Blank”), Björk (“See What She Seeing”, among others), and Robert Wyatt (in the vocal cadence of “Maybe That Was It”).
There's a lot of talk about love on “Swing Lo Magellan”. Specifically of an eternal female, idolised the whole time, even by the girls (“The Socialites”). That and other important things are talked about clearly, with clean and smiling verses, like on “Dance For You”: “There’s an answer. I haven’t found it. But I will keep dancing ‘til I do. Dance for you”. Sincerity and purity rule. We had never before seen the usually cryptic Longstreth bare himself as on the bucolic title track, in “Impregnable Question” (a declaration of love to Amber Coffman written in Mexico, during a moment of peace in between tours), or on that “Irresponsible Tune” with echoes of vintage Hawaii rock where he analyses his mission as a musician: “In my heart there is music, in my mind is a song. But in my eyes a world crooked, fucked-up and wrong”. They are surprisingly simple and unexpected songs that seem to deconstruct, for the better, the offbeat nature of his songs until now.
In a recent interview with AltMusic, Longstreth explains how the album came about, and how for him it implied the most radical change of tone in his career. He says that, in order to write this one, he had to forget about everything he had learned and start over. He talks about a change that is substantial rather than striking, of having pursued simplicity, knowing that that's the hardest thing to achieve, and he defines the album as one that follows the rules rather than disobeys. Do you know why? Because, according to him, “there’s no energy in modernism, anymore”, quite a daring axiom to pronounce on the present artistic scene, which is, for now, governed by one of the tastiest albums of the year.