Swing Lo Magellan opens with a familiar Dirty Projectors motif: the sound of male and female voices, shaped into wordless instruments, swirling around one another. But the more significant sound is the first from lead singer and group mastermind David Longstreth, who begins the album by audibly clearing his throat. Always fascinated with the gaps between initial influence and finished product, Longstreth tweaks his methods here by reveling in imperfection, employing a series of self-effacing gestures that play up the jagged, chockablock nature of his songs.
Combining the vocal trills of ‘90s pop with African polyrhythms and hip-hop beats, generated by a continually rotating cast of musicians, Dirty Projectors is a group for a single-obsessed, shuffle-minded era. This is more apparent than ever on Swing Lo Magellan, which amplifies the deliberate raggedness that made Bitte Orca so weirdly opaque and exciting. That album worked off a pattern of riffs and ideas strung across multiple songs, creating a vaguely conceptual suite about the contemporary roundelay between connection and disconnection. Here the songs are even more flighty and unpredictable, swerving from one genre to another, all while marred and harassed by audible mistakes and technical glitches.
The band’s approach finds a nice précis in the album title: a collision between a 16th-century explorer, a gospel song, and a GPS device. Ranging across a globe’s worth of genres, digging into the past while reaching for a muted form of transcendence, Dirty Projectors remain hopelessly dependent on low-culture references and consumer technology. The world they envision is one that’s flecked with beauty (summed up by Longstreth’s repeated references to women’s hair), but also confusing and scary, a sentiment summed up by tracks like “Gun Has No Trigger,” which stand poised between futility and danger.
Swing Lo Magellan operates at a distinctively modern juncture, the cold nexus between connectivity and the personal detachment such linkage engenders, the emptiness of being a cog in a perfectly devised network. The press tour for the album has found Longstreth name-dropping a flurry of influences, from Lil Wayne to Rod Stewart to Blind Willie Johnson. This seems less like the usual interview patter than a veiled statement of intent. In some sense, the album finds Longstreth focused on making a clear inventory of his raw materials, playing up the divide between these individual components in order to better identify them, establishing his music as a matrix formed from points on a graph. He also seems acutely interested in the issue of personal synthesis, the way people (and bands) build their identities from the primordial stew of pop culture.
In this conception, a person’s self is formed in the same way as an album, cobbled together through a distillation of influences and references, using technology as a guidepost and a tool, melding formerly disparate items into a unified product. Longstreth witnesses such amalgamation and subtly resists it, circumventing seamlessness by adding audible gaps and potholes to his music. Sometimes his lyrics are neat and logical; other times they settle into the kind of absurd, jumbled language that wouldn’t sound out of place in a spam email.
In this sense, the album’s rough spots are a form of rebellion, a symbolic rendering of the cracks that remain between glued-together elements; they’re reminders that even in a networked world, gaping holes and questions will remain. Like 2007’s Rise Above, which messily recreated Black Flag’s Damage (released the same year Longstreth was born) from memory, the material here is focused not only on how we incorporate external influences into our lives, but also the inherent melting-pot garbling that accompanies such incorporation.
Swing Lo Magellan is dense, but not without humor and musicality, which is why a song like “Offspring Are Blank” can suddenly lurch into a swaggering guitar solo and feel at odds with the overall cerebral tone. “The Socialites” combines finger-tapped guitar, stuttering hi-hat strikes, and unsteady bass pulses, but these elements are never allowed to gel properly, resulting in a jittery emulsion of sounds. The biggest example of intrusion remains the purposeful mistakes, the clearest of which occurs on “Unto Caesar,” with one of the female singers first asking for her cue, then losing the thread entirely as the song breaks down into jokes and chatter.
Studio flubs are a familiar enough recording device, often used to add a casual air to an obviously canned atmosphere. Longstreth leaves these moments in because they’re so clearly false; mistakes like this could have easily been filtered out or amended by another take. Retaining such hiccups results in the same kind of distancing effect that might be achieved by distortion or lo-fi recording: identifying and expanding the gap between the listener and the recorded product. The album does so in a method that’s more specific to the group’s style of erratic, globe-spanning patchworks. Wild, wooly, and willfully chaotic, Swing Lo Magellan thrives on this postmodern assessment of its own parts, identifying its inherent artificiality through jerky transitions and purposeful gaffes. As Longstreth sings on “Irresponsible Song”: “With our songs we are outlaws/With our songs we’re alone/But without our songs we’re lost/Our life is pointless, harsh, and long.”