Swing Lo Magellan provides no shortage of polyphonic pleasure — it’s an evolution, not a revolution, in the band’s sound — but where Bitte Orca’s most beautiful moments happened at the culmination of an immaculate crescendo, it’s the quiet and off-kilter elements that resonate here. While “Unto Caesar” might have become a shimmering showstopper in 2009, this year it’s full of spare verses in “Mr. Tambourine Man”-style sing-song and spoken interjections from band members (“That doesn’t make any sense, what you just said”). From another band, it might feel like a novelty, but Dirty Projectors never lean on gimmickry. The self-aware interruptions only add an endearing vulnerability to the fully realized song. Elsewhere on Swing Lo Magellan, the title track’s gentle folk balladry, the warmhearted cooing of “Impregnable Question,” and the clapping-and-searching vibe of “Dance for You” all take a few listens to reveal their charms, but once they do, you’ll want to lock yourself in a room with your stereo and sink into the album for days at a time.
The lyrics on Swing Lo Magellan also reward careful attention. Far more specific and, apparently, heartfelt than the ones on either Dirty Projectors’ concept albums or Bitte Orca, the album’s imagery oscillates between comforting and unsettling. First single “Gun Has No Trigger” has all the emotional acuity and surreal impotence of an anxiety dream: “If you just had looked / But now the banks all closed / And nothing gets bigger / The crowd will yell / But the gun has no trigger.” Equally uncanny — and unnerving, is “Offspring Are Blank,” with its mythological tone and allusions. It’s sort of a love song, but there’s no escaping the astonishing strangeness and bleakness of, “In the marriage of eagle and snake / The parents are fertile but the offspring is blank.”
Even the sweetest love songs acknowledge imperfection. “We don’t see eye to eye / But I need you, and you’re always on my mind,” Longstreth sings on “Impregnable Question.” On that track’s album-closing cousin-by-grammar, “Irresponsible Tune,” he croons, “With our songs, we are outlawed / With our songs, we’re alone / But without songs we’re lost / And life is pointless, harsh, and long.” Honesty is at the forefront of Swing Lo Magellan, and what often comes through is the troubled acceptance of a wholly worthwhile existence without easy answers.