My Albums of 2012 – No. 5: Dirty Projectors ‘Swing Lo Magellan’


Dirty Projectors are an easy band to admire, but quite often hard to love. They make beautiful, intricate, clever records like ‘Bitte Orca’, but they also make records like Rise Above, which took the Black Flag back catalogue and removed all of its heart. Their de facto leader Dave Longstreth is a brilliant man, bursting with musical and intellectual ideas, but in interviews he can come across as cold, supercilious, obstreperous and obtuse (much like the aforementioned Rise Above). Musical heroes of mine such as David Byrne and Bjork have both collaborated on (excellent) records with them and are huge fans. With all of this background knowledge, sitting down to listen to a Dirty Projectors can be a nerve-wracking and often infuriating experience. However, when they’re good, they’re really goddamn good. Thankfully, Swing Lo Magellan is really, really goddamn good.

The thing that stands out most for me is that this feels like a really personal record. There’s a lot of anger and pain in there, but also a massive dollop of sweetness. The most obvious reference point for the melodies on the record seems to be the golden era of George Harrison’s songwriting.

The best of these songs (The Socialites, Irresponsible Tune, Impregnable Question) are exquisite and delicate. Impregnable Question is a painful, direct yet beautiful love song, of the kind you might find tucked away on The Beatles’ White Album: “We don’t see eye to eye, but I need you and you’re always on my mind”. The Socialites is a swooning satire on hipsters, with Amber Coffman’s lead vocal showing that, when they want to, the band can be soulful and intelligent. The most immediate tune, Gun Has No Trigger, has lyrics that might be seen as a bit clever-clever – it questions a consumerist society’s ability to form any effective movement of rebellion (perhaps an distillation of the current malaise of the left, exemplified by the Occupy movement’s lack of direction) – yet it boasted a gloriously mournful melody and sumptuous backing vocals.

The final track, Irresponsible Tune, might be the best of the lot. It seems on the surface to be a charming paean to music and its ability to make us feel something beyond the humdrum loneliness of modern life (“With our songs, we’re alone, but without songs we’re lost and life is pointless, harsh and long”). However, the lyrics also suggest a note of discord: “There’s a bird singing at my window and it’s singing an irresponsible tune”. The meaning of this is left ambiguous, but to me (and I’m sure Dave Longstreth would rather I didn’t reference middlebrow fiction) this lyric reminds me of that famous line in High Fidelity, “What came first: the music or the misery?”. It’s also possible that he is offering a reflection on the growing disconnect between man and nature, reflected in the bird’s song.

Either way, this is a glorious record that manages to combine the Scarecrow with the Tin Man: it has brains and heart.

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