Dirty Projectors wanted to get away, and then it got away from them. Not in a bad way. But they spent almost the entire year writing their sixth album, Swing Lo Magellan. One might expect after spending that much time the result would be wildly baroque and layered — but Magellan is in fact the most direct music Dirty Projectors have made.
Always a very experimental act chiefly characterized by leader David Longstreth's uncanny way with vocals, the band made a surprising leap with 2009's Bitte Orca, a seductively accessible slab of very idiosyncratic music. Yet by the end of Dirty Projectors' tour in support of Bitte Orca, Longstreth's inventive but mannered arrangements had gotten the best of him. He wanted a new direction.
"I looked at the music I had been making the last couple years, and I just feel like the things I have done best are arrangement ideas — like arranging harmonies in a way no one else really does," says Longstreth. "Or putting interlocking guitars in a way nobody does, or layering rhythms in surprising ways. When it came down to the more simple, elusive thing of just writing a song ... I haven't really just looked at that —the bare skeleton itself."
To facilitate looking at that bare skeleton, Longstreth rented a cabin in upstate New York in January of last year and began to write. Over time, other members of the band filtered up there, contributing to the writing and eventually the recording of the album. They wouldn't finish until November.
"We decided to try to find a space somewhere where we could be loud and kind of enjoy nature a little bit," says singer-guitarist Amber Coffman, who also happens to be Longstreth's girlfriend. "We didn't plan on being up there that long, and it was just sort of a thing that you can't really put a time frame on."
Their time resulted in an album that retains all of their trademark oddity, from the strange percussive counter-rhythms running through "Dance for You," to the sudden, brief burst of glam guitar interrupting the otherwise sweetly sedate "Offspring Are Blank" and the slinky female harmonies lining the sleek, late-night post-modern critique "Gun Has No Trigger." The latter is one of their finest achievements, a catchy and stylish tune that's smart, sexy and somewhat impenetrable. Who doesn't like a challenge?
"I don't want to make music that is cerebral and arid," Longstreth says. "I don't like music that I think of as coming from some kind of purely mind-oriented place. We are trying to unify emotional intensity and also have this kind of alertness, a kind of lightness of mind. I feel like the best music does that. That's what I like about a lot of Bjork's music: It's incredibly imaginative, incredibly original on a musical level, a formal level — but it's also so direct emotionally."
That's what's so different about this Dirty Projectors album. It still sounds like them, but there's greater concision, less artifice and more focus on stories and songs. Nowhere is this more apparent than on "Just From Chevron." Longstreth brings a certain cinematic flair to the dying words of a man suffering a heart attack on the ice.
"I was just getting super into the story songs of Dylan, Neil Young, Springsteen and even Afroman," Longstreth says. "[Afroman] has this song 'Palmdale,' which is literally a Springsteen-level tragedy of aspiration and failure. It's a beautiful song. But the way those songwriters can compress whole stories into three minutes is so inspiring to me, and 'Just From Chevron' is kind of like that."
Sometimes on Swing Lo it feels like Dirty Projectors are a pop band caught in a cubist painting. You keep thinking they'll put the pieces together in a way that's less jarring — but that's the beauty of what Longstreth does, those moments of dissonance making the melody that much sweeter. He looks at it like adding a few more exotic, outlying crayons to the coloring set.
"I love chords, I love harmony, I love a lot of different notes, and so the music I write isn't just C, G, E minor," Longstreth says. "Those chords are awesome. But there are other colors."