As Dirty Projectors’ origin story goes, frontman David Longstreth dropped out of Yale when he found the environment not so conducive for the kind of music he wanted to make. Not to read too much into his biography, but it’s easy to imagine Longstreth as one of those gifted and talented types who excelled in school even if he didn’t find so much use from what a formal education had to offer when it came to where his overactive imagination wanted to go. There has always been a precocious and inquisitive quality to Dirty Projectors’ art pop that goes beyond being book smart, even if it’s hard not to notice the highbrow neo-classical elements to their songs. Longstreth has proven himself to be a polymath with an intuitive knack for weaving together threads as disparate as harmonized a capella vocals, electro atmospherics, Afropop-inflected guitar, and polyrhythmic beats into pieces that feel like they’re the products of some mad scientist’s experiment rather than the final project in a music theory seminar.
As ever, Longstreth follows his own muse on Dirty Projectors’ latest, Swing Lo Magellan. But what you might not expect is that Longstreth does so by reining in and harnessing his restless talent this time around, channeling it into well-proportioned avant-rock chestnuts. On Magellan, it’s as if Longstreth has outgrown that stage where he could get by on the sheer novelty and inspiration of his brainstorms, finally learning how to self-edit and add focus to his vision. Even though Magellan may not have the transcendent peaks of Bitte Orca, particularly the virtuoso eclecticism of “Stillness Is the Move” or the prettiness of the gossamer “Two Doves”, the new album, on the whole, is a more consistent and coherent effort. Magellan goes to show that strokes of genius don’t preclude what hard work and constant growth have to offer, no matter how easy and natural the higher order calculus of Dirty Projectors’ compositions seem to come to Longstreth.
So while Longstreth busted the curve on his indie contemporaries with far-out concepts in the past — be it translating Black Flag’s Damaged into a chamber-pop vernacular on Rise Above or writing an indie opera featuring Don Henley as his protagonist on The Getty Address — he has learned to streamline his arrangements and let execution and the raw gifts of the band speak for themselves more. Magellan’s lead single “Gun Has No Trigger” is a good case in point, a deceptively simple track that takes full advantage of no-frills elements like rich backing vocals, boing-y bass, and crisp percussion to provide a backdrop for Longstreth’s multifaceted voice. But the song never feels minimalist because Longstreth opens himself up as a performer, as the uncluttered canvas gives him an opportunity to really let loose as a singer, moving from smooth croon to wobbly, trying-hard falsetto. Ten-dollar word in the title notwithstanding, the sparsely arranged “Impregnable Question” lets down its guard and is tenderly earnest in sentiment and tone, with Longstreth letting bygones be bygones (“What is mine is yours / In happiness and in strife”) because he realizes “I need you / And you’re always on my mind.”
Indeed, many of the album’s most memorable and striking moments tend to be the barest, when Longstreth gets across how comfortable he has become in his own skin as a songwriter. On the summery, shimmery “Dance for You”, the typically cryptic Longstreth comes off more personal and vulnerable than ever, perhaps even getting autobiographical when he seems to be reminiscing about his New Haven days, as he sings, “I boogied down gargoyled streets / Searching in every phase / For something I could believe.” Although there’s hardly anything simplistic about it, the album’s title track breaks things down to the basics of briskly strummed guitar and hushed vocals, conveying a sense of being at ease through the breezy tone and jaunty pace.
Of course, that’s not to say Magellan is without its eccentric flourishes — being more immediate and sincere doesn’t mean the same thing as being straightforward or straight-up pop, as some have suggested. It’s just that Longstreth’s bells-and-whistles go with the flow better this time around, feeling more organic than flamboyant or ostentatious. Sure, maybe guitarist Amber Coffman’s turn as lead on the St. Vincent-ish “The Socialites” sticks out a bit by indulging the band’s sweet tooth for busy orchestration and for a mean-spirited diss of the cool kids, but that’s mostly because the rest of album uses its embellishments in more tempered and less stylized ways. Leadoff number “Offspring Are Blank” works up to some guitar pyrotechnics that go in stride with the song’s ebb-and-flow, while the symphonic touches on “Dance for You” sneak up on you then disappear right after you notice ‘em. Better yet, “See What She Seeing” incorporates clever bits such as twitchy electronic beats and slightly distorted effects, but Longstreth never lets them overwhelm the track’s delicate structure. If anything, they help to set its introspective mood, like when Longstreth’s heartfelt nerves (“Everywhere I go, I see her / Everywhere I look, she disappears”) are punctuated by shuffling, butterflies-in-your-stomach rhythms or when his chorus of “Yeahs!” rises to swooshing, synthesized strings.
Ultimately, what really shines through the most on Magellan are the qualities that can be obscured when all the attention is paid to Dirty Projectors’ obvious proficiency and omnivorous tastes: their enthusiasm and love for music. No matter how weird and challenging things might get, there’s a feeling of joy that’s palpable in the songs here that’s intrinsic to and inseparable from Longstreth’s wide-eyed imagination. You hear it in the way he makes the morbid lyric “About to die” from the song of the same name into the catchiest refrain across the album’s 12 tracks or in the unadulterated good vibes of “Unto Caesar”, which gives you a sense of how much fun Magellan was to make — and is to listen to — by bringing some impromptu studio chatter into the mix. So when Longstreth sings un-self-consciously on the poignant, stripped-down closer “Irresponsible Tune” that “In my heart there is music / In my mind is a song,” he gets at where his songwriting has gotten to on Swing Lo Magellan. By cleaning up and clearing up everything that’s going on in his head, Longstreth is getting better and better at expressing the music in his heart through the songs in his mind.