The thing about strange music is that, when you’re exposed to it again, it’s not quite as jarring as it was in the first instance. Thus, while Dave Longstreth might have perfected a sui generis mode of pop music with his chamber orchestra of pop singers, drum machines, crunching guitars and actual chamber orchestra on Bitte Orca, it’s not a given that it will work again. The arsenal of tricks is impressive, no doubt, but Swing Lo Magellan needed to provide more than just more of the same in order to maintain Dirty Projectors’ deservedly lofty reputation.
The move, it turns out, is one towards what you might call songliness. It’s not that the guitar playing isn’t hyperactive, and the practice of using vocal harmonies to do what a synthesiser or organ would do for others is still in full force, but songs like ‘Maybe That Was It’ and ‘Just From Chevron’ still sound like music that a band might make, something that Grizzly Bear could do. It’s interesting to consider the idea of Dirty Projectors as (god forgive me) just a band. As it turns out, the fallibility is endearing. It’s a resituation of Longstreth as an excellent songwriter rather than a wizard of textures.
It’s not that it’s necessarily any more sane – there is a confusing amount of emotion and drama in what are essentially either surrealist or meaningless lyrics – or that it’s not worthwhile. Lead single ‘Gun Has No Trigger’ proves fairly convincingly that no-one in the world can construct the sounds of a pop song like Dirty Projectors can and opener ‘Offspring Are Blank’ is a winning combination of hushed harmonies and familiar cataclysmic guitar. It’s just that Swing Lo Magellan is, for want of a better term, pleasant. One or two more sharp left turns, whether you consider them just tricks or marks of innovative genius, might have made this album of the year, but without them, it’s just more strange music from Dirty Projectors, albeit deftly done.