Before its arrival in July Dirty Projectors’ new album, “Swing Lo Magellan,” seemed poised to reap critical praise, though perhaps not as much as “Bitte Orca” its 2009 predecessor. In the fickle world of online music journalism, Dirty Projectors are already starting to look old hat, and their recent foray into classic rock songwriting isn’t winning them much new buzz. As the year wraps “Swing Lo Magellan” is landing high on best album lists, but never higher than say, number ten, and it’s a shame since it’s far and away the best album of 2012.
In their decade-long existence Dirty Projectors have served up some wacky concept albums. They wrote an opera about Don Henley and reimagined Black Flag’s “Damaged” (1981) from memory. They’ve had good ideas, but ideas don’t necessarily make for good songs. High-concept records are often lauded for being greater than the sum of their parts, and though it’s tempting to say that about “Swing Lo Magellan,” it would be a disservice to the songs, which are wonderful in and of themselves. Swing Lo’s concept is songwriting, but it’s an anti-concept of sorts, because aren’t all great albums about songwriting?
Bandleader-cum-guru Dave Longstreth seems willing to try anything in pursuit of a song. “Just From Chevron” begins with a game of rhythmic patty cake. The skittering funk of “About to Die” recalls Prince’s “1999.” The title track could fit in any box set of seminal American folk tunes. Despite his eagerness to wear genre hats, Longstreth’s songs are his own. “Maybe That Was It,” with its slinky, patchouli guitar riffs, couldn’t have been made by anyone else.
What’s most staggering about “Swing Lo Magellan” is the great leap in lyrical sophistication. Longstreth’s long admitted to shrugging his duties as lyricist, and in 2009, he sunk to uncharted lows by allowing the line, “And what hits the spot, yeah, like Gatorade?” into “Temecula Sunrise.” But now his agenda has changed, and what a difference it makes. In the impossibly tender, “Impregnable Question,” Longstreth sings, “What is mine is yours, in happiness and in strife. You’re my love, and I want you in my life.” His direct, poignant lyrics practically make “Irresponsible Tune,” and when he sings nonsense on “Unto Caesar,” bandmate Amber Coffman calls him out for it: “Uh, that doesn’t make any sense, what you just said.”
As usual, Longstreth’s surrounded himself with a band of outstanding players. For the single, “Gun Has No Trigger,” they demonstrate the power of restraint. Bassist Nat Baldwin and drummer Brian McOmber create the unwavering groove upon which Dave and the girls–Coffman and Haley Dekle–sing. Background harmonies rise to meet Longstreth’s increasing urgency.
Production-wise, “Swing Lo Magellan” sounds classic. No one’s hiding behind lo-fi static or forgiving reverb, and each individual part is rendered with clarity and warmth. It’s reminiscent of Sunset Sound’s best recordings, and of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours”(1977). To top it off, Dirty Projectors were recently nominated for a Grammy (Best Recording Package). Whether or not you care about the Grammys is your prerogative, but if anything, I’d say the nomination proves the lengths Longstreth went to to deliver a complete album.
I’ve been crusading on behalf of “Swing Lo Magellan” for six months, and I suspect this plea — and it is a plea: I beg you to listen! — is the culmination of my crusade. After today, I’ll pipe down. Because thousands of new records are on the way, and one of them will replace “Swing Lo Magellan” on the turntable. But for now it’s still fresh, still exciting – the best album released in 2012, no contest, not even close.