Counterbalance: Dirty Projectors’ ‘Swing Lo Magellan’

You reach out and into the absence and gasping. The vastness grabs you like an alien embrace, your face to the face of this week's Counterbalance, in which we look at the Dirty Projectors' 2012 indie hit. Foolish, we know, but we're about to die.
Dirty Projectors
Swing Lo Magellan

Klinger: I don’t recall what exactly led me to pick up Rise Above, the Dirty Projectors’ radical 2007 reimagining of the Black Flag album Damaged. I was never that much of a Black Flag fan, and I think I had only read a review or two of the Dirty Projectors before I took the plunge. I’m awfully glad I did, since Dave Longstreth and his group have consistently produced music that’s equal parts challenging and exhilarating. I’ve been a big fan of the way the group structures its songs so that it’s hard to tell exactly when a wave of noise is going to overtake the arrangement, while still maintaining a surprising sense of melody. Swing Lo Magellan (2012) might be my favorite of theirs, with a series of undeniable hooks lying below the slightly off-kilter surface.

Swing Lo Magellan might not have the same unpredictable ebb and flow of their earlier work, but I’m OK with that, especially since it gives me even more of a chance to soak up the sumptuous harmonies of Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle. Seriously, I can’t get enough of the way they play off one another and bounce off Longstreth’s vocals (the quirkiness of which, like the group’s arrangements overall, has been sanded down a bit over the years — although that may help explain why the album made it to No. 22 on the Billboard charts). But as always, I’m curious about your reaction to this group, especially since they’ve now landed two LPs in the Great List’s Top 1000 (this album’s at No. 958 and its predecessor Bitte Orca is at No. 471).

Mendelsohn: I tried, and failed, to get into Dirty Projectors back in 2009 when Bitte Orca washed across the hipster masses. People would be like,”Did you hear the new Dirty Projectors?” and I’d nod my head vigorously and say, “Yes, I have”, and then stare directly into their eyes, hoping my unending gaze would unnerve them and they would walk away before posing a follow-up questions. It worked amazingly well and I went on with life, ignoring the Dirty Projectors until you handed me a copy of Swing Lo Magellan.

I have to tell you, Klinger, this record annoyed the hell out of me. Every time I would listen to it, I would get angry at Longstreth for writing perfectly perfect pop tunes and them ruining them with syncopated beats and weird noise. Why was he being willfully obtuse? And this stance pretty much goes completely against my love of indie rock with a propensity for experimental tendencies and bouts of unmitigated noise. I love that shit, Klinger. Why couldn’t I love the Dirty Projectors? I was confounded but I kept listening. Then, one day, I woke up and it all clicked. Snippets of songs would flash through my head. The “oooohs” of Coffman and Deradoorian contrasting with the flat, sandpapery croon of Longstreth, the most excellent guitar riffage and the sweet little electronic chimes. It all culminated with the refrain of “About to Die”, looping on repeat in my head for most of a day, which is slightly disconcerting when you are trying to cook eggs or empty the dishwasher.

Klinger: I could see that. But ultimately, I think that’s the kicker behind just about every album that we’ve discussed in the last (sweet Jesus) four years. Lurking underneath the feedback or the yelling or the shrill noises that sound like a tea kettle is the beating heart of a pop song — something that’s designed to get you to move to whatever rhythms and resonances that the writer had in her or his head. (Yes, even Captain Beefheart, I suppose.) I’m not sure if Longstreth has just gotten better at articulating that melodic sensibility or if he’s just gotten tired of pretending to be willfully obtuse. All I know is if he keeps writing noirish tunes like “The Gun Has No Trigger” he could end up being a musical polymath on par with Elvis Costello.

But I must confess that you’ve caught me unawares here, since I was kind of expecting you to stick with your annoyance so we could have ourselves a good old-fashioned round-and-round. Still, I guess that it’s pretty near impossible to resist those joyous harmonies. I keep coming back to “Unto Caesar”, personally, where the vibe is way looser, Coffman and Deradoorian’s harmonies are perfectly out of sync, and snippets of chatter cut in and out. It’s all pretty delightful, and I have to ask how you could ever doubt its delightfulness, if for no other reason that to start an argument. What kept you, Mendelsohn?

Mendelsohn: Sometimes, I just don’t want to put in the work. For as good as this record can be, and it is excellent in some unexpected places, it doesn’t exactly come off as accessible at first blush. But then it opens up and I’m enthralled. From the blistering guitar licks that surface out of nowhere in “Offspring Are Blank” to the sweetness of “Swing Lo Magellan” to the call-and-response of “Impregnable Question”, there is so much to discover.

Despite my effusiveness, I still find myself wondering why Longstreth won’t simplify the formula. Yes, he can write fantastic pop hooks, but he’s no Costello. There is an economy to Costello’s songwriting the Longstreth seems unable or unwilling to match. Maybe it’s just my ears trying to find a conventional song structure in music that is built to defy structure while at the same time celebrating pop convention. Maybe it’s the orchestration and choral overtones that weave themselves in and out of the songs. I like it — this record is upbeat and magical, but it lacks a propulsiveness that only gets hinted at but never really put to good use. Does that make sense?

Klinger: Much as I love this record, that does make sense, and I have good reason to believe that you’re not alone in your assessment. While Swing Lo Magellan has been widely praised by the pop press, it seems like there was some undercurrent of creeping malaise in their assessment — a general sense that this album sounded like it might be either a holding pattern at best. This could explain why 2009’s Bitte Orca is ranked a good bit higher than Swing Lo Magellan. It carries a good bit more of the initial thrill of discovery that makes an album seem all the more special when you first hear it.

At worst, critics might be under the impression that Swing Lo Magellan marks the last point before a group starts repeating itself. That’s not the worst news in the world — the Rolling Stones have been accused of repeating themselves since before you were born, but it might be even more odd to a group whose success is more, shall we say, esoteric. But we’ve seen that before and we’ll see it again. And no, Longstreth isn’t really 1978-era Elvis Costello with his compact blasts of wordplay and trickery, but he could be late-period Costello, the sort who seems filled with an eagerness to demonstrate his ability to work in virtually any genre.

Mendelsohn: I’m more comfortable with that comparison. I can see Longstreth picking up where Costello or David Byrne or Bryan Ferry or a number of other rockers — who tread the line between rock and art so gracefully — left off. At the heart of the record is Longsteth’s ability to make something new out of the tired old bits of rock that is left lying around. We’ve talked about it before, and I’m sure we will talk about it again, but the success if this record is its ability to find that intersection between rock’s present and its future.

Klinger: I’m pretty sure that as long as the Dirty Projectors’ singers continue to create a Brooklynonian version of Mahotella Queens to Longstreth’s Paul Simon (by way of David Byrne as you suggest), it’s possible that more people will see the group’s place on the pop music continuum. And maybe I’m just a cock-eyed optimist, but I have reason to believe that Dirty Projectors will continue to challenge newcomers even as they provide comfort to the indoctrinated.