Five years ago, Brooklyn’s Dirty Projectors released Rise Above, one of the most ambitious and outlandish pop albums of the last decade. Playing Black Flag’s Damaged entirely from memory, the band refashions one of punk’s most influential LPs with looping avant-pop melodies that are fleshed out with razor-sharp harmonies and disarmingly delicate woodwinds. It’s exacting, irreverent and inherently confrontational. In other words, it’s the antithesis of Swing Lo Magellan, Dirty Projectors’ subtle and sensational new LP.
Steeped in conventional pop influences and personal songwriting, Magellan sees the Projectors coming full circle, playing foils to their former selves while maintaining their signature sonic hallmarks — cutting vocal harmony, daringly disjointed guitar lines. As a collection of catchy and emotionally rich pop songs, Magellan stands as one of the year’s best. As a Dirty Projectors record, it’s a breathtaking change of pace, proof that accessibility suits them as well as (if not better than) eccentricity.
“How much did we burn out on complexity?” laughs singer and guitarist Dave Longstreth, taking time for a quick chat before a sound check on the band’s North American tour. He’s mocking a question — a recurring theme during the conversation — painting a query about the Projectors' retreat to simplicity as a pointed accusation. Nothing seems too sacred to him, and that includes the meticulously manicured pop he’s been honing for a decade.
“I don’t want to keep doing the same thing over and over again,” he continues. “I want to set up new challenges for myself as a writer and for us in the band as players. We could have done sort of a similar thing again, but it wouldn’t have been as exciting. It wouldn’t have felt risky or dangerous or difficult.”
At first blush, Magellan doesn't feel like a big risk. It pairs the catchiest elements from the Projectors' popular catalog with understated and efficient pop craftsmanship. It's like David Byrne retooling Fleetwood Mac, producing radio-ready tunes delivered with an approachably oddball sense of rhythm and melody. An assortment of drum beats and hand claps underpin “About to Die,” tumbling forth in syncopated triplets that add nervous intensity to the song's pitch-perfect chorus. It's a clever variation on a traditional sound, and like most of Magellan, it forgoes the sense of stylistic adventure that has thus far been the Projectors' calling card. These tunes are delivered with complex accoutrements, but at their core they are simple songs built on comfortable melodies. For most, such straightforward songwriting wouldn't be risky at all, but Longstreth has never been a straightforward musician.
“I sort of looked at what the band has done so much of, and a lot of it has to do with arrangement and ideas of texture and orchestration and stuff like that,” he explains. “Those are cool, but there’s another idea of a song that weirdly is almost beginning to seem old-fashioned or something like that — the song as music and lyrics. I kind of wanted to get back to that and write a bunch of stuff that you could just reduce that far, and it would still kind of translate.”
2009's Bitte Orca found Longstreth at his most focused, solidifying his varied artistic impulses into something more cohesive than anything the Projectors had yet to create. Magellan maintains that sense of purpose but dials back the peripheral elements, placing the emphasis firmly on Longstreth and his songs. The immaculate female harmonies and prickling guitars are still here, but their function is one of support. Longstreth's piercing vocal is the centerpiece, exposing him in a way no previous Dirty Projectors record has.
“I wasn’t self-conscious about it at the the time,” Longstreth says. “I was like, ‘I’m just going to write a shit load of songs and just record them, and I don’t know what the record is going to be. I don’t really care.’ Normally, I go through a lot of different steps, like kind of process steps, in arriving at a finished song or something. It’ll start out as a melody and some words, and it typically can change a lot.”
To this point, the Dirty Projectors have been pursuing what Longstreth calls a “musical conversation,” a collage of the myriad sounds and styles that catch his interest. With Magellan he did the opposite, fashioning his songs with only the parts he felt were absolutely necessary.
“For all these songs I just wanted it to be where you couldn’t take away any of these elements and still have the song,” he says. “They’re all at that point where they’re just about as sparse as they can be.”
— Jordan Lawrence is assistant editor at Charlotte-based Shuffle magazine and a contributing writer at The Independent.
who: Dirty Projectors, with POP ETC
where: The Orange Peel
when: to come
when: Friday, Aug. 10. (Doors at 8 p.m., show at 9 p.m. Ages 16-plus. Tickets are $18 in advance, $20 day of show, and for sale at theorangepeel.net.)