Dirty Projectors: Swing Lo Magellan

22 Jul

Swing Lo Magellan is the Dirty Projectors sixth studio album and comes two years after critical darling Bitte Orca. Swing Lo Magellan is the most accessible album Dirty Projectors have far released so far, though this does not mean their sound has become any less distinctive. Like many other Dirty Projectors albums, the musical influences are so varied as make the band impossible
to categorise. Swinging from minimalistic hip hop beats to jarring, progressive rock guitar riffs, from electroclash and glitch to soft ballads, may appear like the makings of a wildly inconsistent album, but the Dirty Projectors have a solid and assured sound. As musicians, they are inventive and technically flawless, and from an academic standpoint make for fascinating study. Unfortunately, this is where the “However . . .” part of the review has to kick in.

The critical praise heaped on Swing Lo Magellan means that a dissenting view is almost certainly unwelcome. Worse, this dissenting view is not restricted to their latest album, but to the band overall. The album contains some beautiful musical flourishes, clever lyrics and a clear direction. I liked a lot of Swing Lo Magellan. But I’m not a Dirty Projectors fan. They are a band I would love to like, but when push comes to shove, I just don’t.

There is a character in a Douglas Adams novel who takes to humming an aimless noise when he wants to infuriate someone. This hum runs up and down
scales, almost forming something resembling a tune until it veers wildly in the other direction. The person who attempts to follow this humming is slowly driven insane. This is how I feel about David Longstreth’s vocals. His arpeggio singing, combined with that voice that teeters so close to breaking, can be used for great effect. Mostly I find it exhausting. When you enjoy the particular vocal quirks of a singer, every song becomes an interesting exploration of said quirks; when you don’t, every song starts to sound the same.

The result is that my favourite song on the album is “The Socialites” – the only song where Longstreth does not sing at all. Instead, Amber Coffman is allowed to take the lead vocals and her clear soprano is a welcome change. Unlike their previous album Bitte Orca, where Coffman took the lead on quite a few of the songs, “The Socialites” is the only Swing Lo Magellan song to feature her prominently and the album suffers from her relegation to the role of chief background ethereal harmony-maker.

If you are a fan of Dirty Projectors, I have no doubt that this album won’t disappoint. If you are like me, then you’ll just have to stew in your own indifference.

By Tessa Clews


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