Swing Lo Magellan, Dirty Projectors’ latest album, is supposedly different from 2009’s Bitte Orca, a record that was lauded so much and so fervently by reviewers that hecklers coined an acronym for that year’s critical lockstep: GAPDY. (They’re the D, with fellow Pazz & Jop critics’ poll toppers Grizzly Bear, Animal Collective, Phoenix and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.) How precisely the album differs, though, nobody can quite agree. Frontman David Longstreth’s little help in interviews, unless you trust that your idea of turning one’s back on tapestries of guitar, vocal pockets or color spectrums matches his. If it doesn’t — let’s face it, it doesn’t — you’re left to decide some other way which styles Longstreth’s abandoned or adopted.
Good luck. Swing Lo Magellan is simpler, yes, Longstreth’s next step along the path that leads away from Yalie noodling and demented Black Flag reconstructions and toward pop. It’s not more pop, mind you; there’s no immediate standout like Bitte Orca breakout “Stillness Is the Move.” The single, “Gun Has No Trigger,” comes close, but only because it’s got crescendos and the analog equivalent of a drum loop. But Magellan’s not less pop, either. You can hum stretches of songs — sometimes more than stretches. Those stretches could be called more folky; the title track would code Americana even if it didn’t reference spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “Dance For You” sounds as if it did start as something traditional, “O Shenandoah” perhaps, before Longstreth sped half of it up and slowed the remainder into an spacey blur. It’s more lyrically accessible, in that it’s got more pull-quote lines like, “He was made to love her, she was made to love him” or “You’re my love, and I want you in my life” or “There is an answer, I haven’t found it.” One thing Magellan undeniably is: less R&B, because Dirty Projectors were never R&B. Their excursions to the outskirts of Timbaland’s production styles could only register as such in a pasty indie-rock context, and one funkless Solange Knowles cover doesn’t change that.
Some things haven’t changed. Magellan, predictably, is so far as acclaimed as Orca. It’s as impressive and weighty, and it’s as much Longstreth’s show. The instruments still sound like they’ve drunkenly stumbled into woodchippers; the percussion still sprawls in splinters, like pickup sticks. Hearing “Just From Chevron,” you’d think guitars worked like wind chimes. “About to Die” establishes an almost beachy groove, then sways right out of it. “See What She Seeing” sounds as if someone’s playing a shoot ‘em up in the background. “Irresponsible Tune,” the closing track, would be a standard unadorned closer if Longstreth’s vocal tracks weren’t deliberately misaligned by a split-second. Yes, the vocals are also unchanged. Dave still sounds like Dave, ragged, flailing and not a bit trained. You could call that sound yearning or poignant; you could just as plausibly call it the equivalent of The Lion King’s Zazu backed by a couple nightingales. Those are the women, long-timer Amber Coffman and somewhat newer Haley Dekle, and once again, they do almost nothing.
“You could call that sound yearning or poignant; you could just as plausibly call it the equivalent of ’The Lion King”s Zazu backed by a couple nightingales.”
Recall the Bitte Orca cover: Longstreth’s not on it, but Coffman and former vocalist Angel Deradoorian are, heads strung together as if they’ve been hooked up to a mad scientist’s contraption. (Deradoorian’s not here this time, just like former former vocalist Susanna Waiche wasn’t there that time; the replacements are seamless.) It’s startlingly apt as a visual metaphor, though probably not for the reason Longstreth thinks. There, as here, he plays their voices like instruments: synth pads on “Offspring Are Blank,” climactic horn blasts on “Gun Has No Trigger,” chirpy samples on “About to Die.” Elsewhere, they play offscreen narrator to Longstreth’s dying hero on “Just From Chevron.” They show up on “Impregnable Question,” ostensibly a duet but mostly Coffman and Dekle nodding at Longstreth’s more salient philosophizing. When that philosophizing turns to nonsense on “Unto Caesar’s” mercenary — Barbary-martyr poetry, they josh him a bit, but only after asking for their vocal cue. Coffman does eventually take lead on “The Socialites,” but on an album where Longstreth’s likened himself to thinkers, historical figures and about three lone wanderers, something about watching the popular girls is bound to seem frivolous. It all brings to mind an old choir joke: the altos only exist to make the sopranos look good, but at least they get really good at singing E-flats.
When the altos tell that joke, it’s usually with some sort of coda like “…but at least we know music.” Coffman and Dekle know music, though their instrumental contributions can get subsumed by how they’re tweaked. They certainly know singing; Coffman’s arguably responsible for the Projectors’ biggest hit and has gotten side work with the likes of British producer Rusko, and Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian and Haley Dekle all contributed vocals to the Roots’ How I Got Over (?uestlove called them his “favorite genius sirens”). But for all Magellan’s consistent and considerable craft, it’s hard not to become weary of their playing handmaiden to Longstreth’s auteur. “I can see what she seeing,” he sings on the track of the same name, the one where he conjures up a shiny-eyed, whippy-haired imaginary girlfriend. In the song, it’s a manic pixie dream girl fantasy. In real life, it’s just his recording process.