The Dirty Projectors make weird, complicated music, and for that, you either love them or loathe them. The rhythms move as unpredictably as a handful of bouncy balls chucked at a sidewalk. The guitars lope and noodle sporadically when they’re not flashing out in crunchy bursts. And the singing? It’s like listening to vocal gymnastics, with the voices bending into melodic curlicues and stretching to hold unnatural poses in harmony.
Frontman, founder and composition whizkid David Longstreth started laying the groundwork for the Dirty Projectors’ sound in the early 2000s, and much of the initial stuff is awkward art-kid noise that only a music theory student could love. That started to change with 2007′s Rise Above, where, amid the band’s reinterpretations of Black Flag songs, you can hear Longstreth sorting out a vocal vision using female singers Amber Coffman and Susanna Waiche, who was later replaced by Angel Deradoorian. Already there’s the hint of R&B swing in the voices, though on that LP, they still move stiffly as Longstreth makes abstract finger-paintings with his electric guitar. Then on 2009′s Bitte Orca, it’s like someone pulled the strings on a bunch of limp puppets and snapped the band into proper form. Alongside the off-kilter elements are rock-oriented guitar chugs, relatively straightforward melodies and moments of just plain pretty singing (specifically Coffman on “Stillness Is The Move” and Deradoorian on “Two Doves”).
While Bitte Orca gave a quick peek behind the band’s curtain of oddity, Swing Lo Magellan allows you a longer look. Longstreth has said that he wanted to follow more of a traditional verse-chorus-verse structure with this album, and he’s managed to do that without losing the Dirty Projectors’ quirk. Big guitar crunches and vocal acrobatics remain intact, but there are fewer moments of meandering; these songs have parameters.
You can hear the structure immediately on opener “Offspring Are Blank.” The beat enters as gentle in-unison handclaps, and Coffman and Haley Dekle coo behind Longstreth’s verse. Bassist Nat Baldwin and drummer Brian McOmber slam in at the “He was made to love her/She was made to love him” chorus, bashing around before the calm returns for another verse. Where old Longstreth would’ve spent at least two minutes floating around the song’s bridge—if it even had an area you could identify as “the bridge”—new Longstreth self-edits and keeps it clipped. With “Gun Has No Trigger,” the Dirty Projectors show they can still squeeze wonderfully bizarre moments into these stricter song rules; as the verses climb toward the chorus, Coffman and Dekle’s gentle oo mutates into a scream-like ah as Longstreth hits the climactic “The safety’s off/But the gun has no trigger.”
Though there’s more structure to the songs on Magellan, the band never strains itself to fit into the simplified arrangements. In fact, the Dirty Projectors seem totally relaxed. There’s a warmth, an openness in the tone of these songs that hasn’t turned up often on older albums. This new intimacy comes through clearly on the back-to-back tracks “The Socialites” and “Unto Caesar.” On the former, single guitar notes lightly pop behind Coffman’s lilting voice, and it’s the sparseness of the track that gives it the sung-in-a-bedroom feeling. The latter lets you into the recording booth thanks to a “let the tape roll” approach that catches a laugh, a singer asking, “When should we bust in with harmony?” and another bandmate commenting, “That doesn’t make any sense, what you just said.”
Funny thing is, most of the words Longstreth and Coffman sing this time do actually make sense. Where before the band would’ve sung nonsensical lines in herky-jerky voices, here there’s something more traditional, approachable. “I need you/And you’re always on my mind,” sings Longstreth on “Impregnable Question,” soon one-upping his professions with “You’re my love/And I want you in my life.” The Dirty Projectors are still fantastic weirdos making fantastically weird music, but Swing Lo Magellan humanizes them by letting you see through to their heartstrings.