Reading between the lines, it’s tempting to see the title of Dirty Projectors’ sixth album as a sly reference to the group’s own endlessly questing nature. Five hundred years ago, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan set out to find a secure route to the Spice Islands and ended up killed in battle during the first ever circumnavigation of the globe; it’s through his eyes that front-man Dave Longstreth finds himself “squinting Westward at the sunset/ with a map and a compass” on Swing Lo Magellan‘s breezy title track, and whilst their respective achievements are incomparable in terms of scale and significance, it’s no real stretch to imagine the two men having a lot in common. Longstreth’s own insatiable appetite for experimentation and apparent inability to stay in a single musical headspace for longer than it takes to write and record an album has resulted in some of the most bizarre and – latterly – beautiful music of the 21st Century: whether casting the Eagles’ Don Henley as the main character in a “glitch opera”, using West African guitars to recreate Black Flag’s Damaged from memory alone, collaborating with Bjork on a song-cycle about whales or channeling orchestral chamber-pop and Timbaland-style R&B into a true modern soul masterpiece, Longstreth has ensured that each Dirty Projectors release has been – for band and fans alike – a daring adventure into the unknown.
In this respect, Swing Lo Magellan is actually something of a break from the norm; less (immediately) experimental and more accessible than its predecessors, this is – as the press release helpfully describes it – “an album of songs”, and whilst most of those songs are anchored by subtly showy, digitally edited rhythms, there are no gimmicks or underlying concepts to distract from Longstreth’s brilliantly bold tunes and simply stunning vocal arrangements. Opener “Offspring Are Blank“, for example, may start with gut-rattling sub-bass and syrupy a cappella harmonies, but there are echoes of Pete Townshend and even Brian May in the fire-and-brimstone guitars that erupt suddenly, thrillingly, during the chorus; similarly, beyond the pitch-shifted hand-drums and plucked harps that introduce “About To Die” is a glorious pop melody that wouldn’t sound out of place on one of McCartney’s ‘70s solo releases. There are, of course, some concessions to past fixations (“Just From Chevron”, with its handclapping beat and zippy guitars, recalls Rise Above’s African feel, whilst “See What She’s Seeing”, in particular, revisits the girl/ boy call-and-response style perfected on Bitte Orca, with Longstreth and co-vocalists Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle – replacing the “on hiatus” Angel Deradoorian – backed by little more than scuttling beats and the occasional orchestral flourish), but if the conceptual statements of previous releases smacked slightly of cooler-than-thou musical snobbery, Swing Lo Magellan is more inclusive: yes, there are elements of jazz and folk, avant-electronica and music from far-off shores, but they are all seamlessly integrated into a sprawling sound tapestry that even the most luddite rocker could appreciate.
This new-found openness is largely reflected in the album’s lyrics; aside from the vaguely sinister lead single “Gun Has No Trigger” (below), which makes allusions to a feeling of impotent insignificance in the face of various current global crises, most of Swing Lo Magellan’s songs deal with ideas like hope, love and joy. When, on “Dance For You”, Longstreth sings of “boogying” down the street, “Searching in every face for something I could believe”, it’s optimism rather than despair talking; likewise, his desire to “feel the breath of a force (he) cannot explain” isn’t the plea of a man seeking divine intervention but a playful challenge, inviting the universe to show him something that will blow his mind. Maybe it’s the inner peace brought about by being in love with a girl (Coffman) “Whose eyes are shining/ Looking at me”; certainly, it’s hard to recall the singer sounding as relaxed, as content as he does on the stirring piano ballad “Impregnable Question”, telling his beau “I need you, and you’re always on my mind”. Whatever the reason, even by the band’s typically uplifting standards Swing Lo Magellan is positively joyous. By the time the penultimate “Unto Caesar” reaches its celebratory climax, you can hear them whooping and hollering, literally cheering each other on to the finish line. As Longstreth himself points out over the slow-strummed guitar and gospel harmonies of closer “Irresponsible Tune”, “Without songs/ We are lost, and life is pointless, harsh and long.” He’s right, but he also understands better than almost anyone else working in the field today the transformative power of his art. “In my heart there is music,” he sings, “In my mind is a song.” And for that, we should be truly thankful.
Swing Lo Magellan is out July 9 on Domino