A timeline of my brief involvement with Dirty Projectors’ new album Swing Lo Magellan:
The first time I listened to Swing Lo Magellan, I admittedly shrugged it off. In line as their second attempt at “accessibility” (previous being 2009’s Bitte Orca), it really had little effect on me. Maybe it was the weather, maybe I needed a nap. Who knows. Either way, I couldn’t push myself to engage with it.
The second time I listened to it, I kinda liked this first song, “Offspring Are Blank.” It has a ridiculous chorus of soaring guitars and spasmodic drumming against a relatively soft, sparse verse. But by the end of the album, I had still found that first song to be the most affecting.
The third time I listened to it, I tried hard to lend my most critical ear into each song. About this time, press and writing had started to come in. I tried to put aside my personal distaste for Bitte Orca and disdain for Rise Above, David Longstreth’s attempt to “remember/reimagine” the classic Black Flag album after apparently not listening to it for 15 years. I noted the difference between the minimal “Gun Has No Trigger” and preceding track “About To Die.” I also noted the inserted banter/studio chat in various tracks, most notably “Unto Ceasar,” something alluding to the effect of remembering that people were involved in the recording of the album. In the end, I came out of that experience still as unaffected.
The fourth time I listened to it, I snapped. The gates holding back my personal feelings gave way, and I couldn’t do it. Over my head hung the fruits of my research, demons in the shape of words, such as “the listener can picture a West that has been smithereened into archipelagodom” or “Dirty Projectors are restructuring rock on a compositional level rather than a sonic one.” This was the hype that first gained my curiosity, which then formed into my distaste, which eventually became my dislike toward both the music and the hype until I could no longer separate the two from one collective frustration. Somehow, any Dirty Projectors album has become a platform/cliff from which writers launch themselves to dizzying verbal heights, talking of each album’s grandness, its execution, its theory, and its effectiveness. I had personally found each Dirty Projectors album I heard lacking in urgency, in expression, and in execution, especially compared to the theories/ideas behind the music. Swing Lo has already publicly steeped itself in its own theories: in an interview, Longstreth said “Bitte Orca was this collection of really bright, iridescent surfaces, and this one is more like unbleached fucking leather, or untreated wood that’s warping in the elements.”
So maybe that’s what I’m missing: “unbleached fucking leather.” I keep looking for that “iridescence,” but that’s the wrong way. With my mind turned towards “untreated wood,” I kept listening.
Already, Swing Lo has been called “one that, on the whole, feels suitably bucolic.” This is the second time “bucolic” has been used in Dirty Projectors press from the last week: Longstreth used the word in a New York Times interview to describe his view of the New York skyline. But nothing, and I mean nothing is “bucolic” about Swing Lo, except for the album cover. Taking something from this same interview, where Longstreth says “These are songs without any context,” my newfound “untreated wood” theory is completely obliterated.
So now I approach the album with no context, zero, nothing… until I discover a review that has likened the album to one Mr. Bob Dylan: “[The] songs on Swing Lo Magellan can really be divided into two categories: songs that sound like Bob Dylan songs, and songs that don’t sound like Bob Dylan songs. There’s ‘Swing Lo Magellan.’ That one sounds like Bob. ‘Impregnable Question,’ too.”
Now I’m listening to the album, and I’m thinkin’ of Bobby D, and as I’m thinkin’, I think to myself “Dylan wouldn’t write a song about the offspring of an eagle and a snake (“Offspring Are Blank,” the song I liked).” Maybe this is one on the “non-Dylan” side, so I turn to one that supposedly “is,” “Impregnable Question,” which is by and far the most accessible DP on the album. I could maybe, very maybe hear Dylan singing the words “You’re my love/ And I want you in my life,” but then again I could also hear about 10,000 other people singing the same thing: Adele, Andre 3000, Avril Lavigne, Beyoncé, Bowie… pretty much anybody. Personally, I think Dylan wouldn’t try to force the words “impregnable question” into their awkward and somewhat ill-fitting spaces. The more I listen to the song’s simple bass-and-piano structuring (which is a change I normally enjoy, but not one I’m convinced suits DP) while also listening for anything “Dylan-esque,” the more I wish I was actually listening to Bob Dylan instead. Then there’s the case of the title track “Swing Lo Magellan,” which I have to insist is completely absent of Dylan — maybe if you consider the track name, where Longstreth invokes/appropriates the name of a famous African American spiritual song in context of Ferdinand Magellan (problems aplenty). Dylan is also a man of cultural apropos, but this just seems unfitting. Dylan treats his sources/appropriations with mastery and respect, as worded by Johnathan Lethem, “Dylan’s art offers a paradox: while it famously urges us not to look back, it also encodes a knowledge of past sources that might otherwise have little home in contemporary culture.” Can this be said of “Swing Lo Magellan?” Longstreth is quoted as saying that the album “is less like a carefully curated collection of interests and tastes.” Maybe he’s trying to misguide us, but I hardly find this to be the case. “[This] one is more like: this is who I am.” Is that something Dylan would ever say?
Without Dylan, I was once again at zero, and this time I tried to find things I agreed with in Longstreth’s theories. Like this: “I do feel like the hardest thing is to do something simple and tap into whatever remains of our common language rather than cultivating your own willfully esoteric vocabulary.” However, everything I’ve written above and everything I’ve experienced from Swing Lo Magellan would seem to support that DP has done nothing but cultivate its own “esoteric vocabulary.” Longstreth can call himself out on it, saying, “it’s just very contrary of me to try and write simple shit.” Indeed, Swing Lo does seem like an attempt at simplification in DP terms, but there’s so much esotericism throughout the album that, once again, I can’t seem to agree that the product supports the theory. Going back to the song I liked (which I no longer do, by this point), “Offspring Are Blank,” both the title and the core subject of snake/eagle love destiny are by definition esoteric. Not only that, but also the song as both a lyrical and compositional whole is incredibly irreverent. Works if you’re a snotty garage band, but it doesn’t work if you’re one of the biggest critical darlings of the century with a knack towards the conceptual.
Longstreth has tried for immediacy and moment-capture with Swing Lo. “The idea of letting a recording be a moment in time appealed to me,” he said. Indeed, that studio banter mentioned earlier is supposed to be what supports this, but it sounds re-inserted to fit the songs and is about as “authentic”/”realistic” as the studio banter in The Pixies’ Surfer Rosa (i.e., it’s not). Nothing necessarily comes off as the capturing of the moment, but maybe this has been skewed by my own aural perception, as I have been listening to something that pulls this theory off much better all week.
Simply put, the music on Swing Lo can’t support its great ideas. To quote Dylan, “a song is anything that can walk by itself.” Maybe time will prove me completely and utterly wrong, but as far as I can tell, nothing on Swing Lo walks by itself.