Dirty Projectors Get Back to Basics on 'Swing Lo Magellan'

Dave Longstreth has never written "songs" in the traditional sense. His music is fractured and messy, the sonic equivalent of pointillistic visual art. When you analyze the nuts and bolts up close, Longstreth's sonic experiments look like random, disconnected colors: heady, idiosyncratic layers of virtuosic electric-guitar drizzle, flourishes of machine-gun percussion, spasms of disgruntled noise and the clockwork female harmonies of his trusted back-up vocalizers. But when you step back against the gallery wall, so to speak, and give his music the space it deserves (and even requires), the chaos starts to take shape.

Longstreth's music exists in a universe totally unto itself—and his free-spirited, savant-like approach to songwriting ensures that his name is slung through the mud as often as it's praised. Those who hate Dirty Projectors hate them passionately; and ironically, they hate them for the same reasons so many worship the group's every move.

The biggest reason for that divisiveness (besides Longstreth's often off-putting, alien vocal presence) is his fondness for Big Concepts. Ever since he started recording music (originally as a solo bedroom project while studying music at Yale), Longstreth has tied his songs together with odd thematic links: 2005's The Getty Address was structured as a quasi-opera about a suicidal Don Henley; on 2007's funkier and more aggressive Rise Above (the first Dirty Projectors album recorded as a legitimate band), Longstreth attempted to re-interpret Black Flag's hardcore punk debut, Damaged, after having not listened to it in 15 years; Mount Wittenberg Orca (a 2010 collaborative EP with Icelandic singer Björk) was a warm yet perplexing concept album about a family of whales, built largely on the swirling female vocal counterpoint and fluid, precise rhythms that also defined the band's sprawling critical and commercial breakthrough, Bitte Orca.

Swing Lo Magellan, Dirty Projectors' sixth studio album, is startling for totally opposite reasons. Where Rise Above and Bitte Orca glistened with immaculate performances and constantly toyed with structure, veering jarringly between tempos, time signatures, and textures in the course of a single track, Swing Lo Magellan is strikingly linear and sonically raw. They've flirted with pop in the past, albeit indirectly (Bitte Orca single "Stillness Is the Move" sounds like Beyonce tripping on acid), but Magellan achieves a Zen-like focus unlike anything else in their peculiar discography. In Longstreth's own words, this is "an album of songs," a conscious attempt to strip away the technical and conceptual fussiness of their past work and explore what makes a pop song tick. Behind its unguarded intimacy and musical vulnerability, Magellan has heart.

"You could say that we're suffering from realness," Longstreth says. "It's hard, in a context of digital music, and with the way we consume music now, to let something be raw, you know? It's so easy to correct it, and it's easy to make the idea clearer, or to make the performance a little bit more straight-up. But that's not what this is about."

Swing Lo Magellan is the result of an intense songwriting pilgrimage. Longstreth, a Brooklyn resident, journeyed four hours northwest to the woods of Delaware County, N.Y., where he spent an entire year writing and recording music in a creepy—and possibly haunted—house that had been vacated for two decades. He immersed himself in the craft of songwriting, fashioning the bug-infested attic into a studio, accompanied periodically by his bandmates (vocalist/guitarist Amber Coffman, vocalist Haley Dekle, bassist Nat Baldwin, and drummer Brian McOmber).

He ended up with at least 70 ideas (beats, fragments, or even "moves," as Longstreth calls them), which were pared down to 40 finished demos and then, eventually, Magellan's 12 wide-reaching yet tuneful tracks. It sounds like an agonizing process, but for Longstreth, it was a necessary exploration—figuring out which songs needed to belong together.

"It wasn't really whittling," Longstreth says. "The thing is that prior Dirty Projectors albums have largely preceded from a single idea that becomes an entire record, whether it's rewriting a Black Flag album from memory or telling some story about Amber singing to a pod of whales or something like that, you know? This time around, I just got obsessed with the craft of songwriting, I guess, just what a song is, what a song can do, what a song can mean, what it can be."

Magellan may be Longstreth's most immediate, listener-friendly effort simply because of its stripped-down focus—but it's also unguarded in ways that feel revelatory in the Pro Tools-dominated 21st-century indie-verse. In an age where every indie-rock song sounds polished and pitch-corrected, Magellan's downright dirtiness feels, oddly, like a breath of fresh air. From a recording standpoint, Longstreth embraced a first-take approach, favoring spontaneity and happy accidents over complex layering and sophisticated refinement.

A version of this story originally appeared at pastemagazine.com.