Dirty Projectors: Out of the Woods

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Dave Longstreth has never written “songs” in the traditional sense: His music is fractured and messy, the sonic equivalent of pointillistic visual art. When you analyze the nuts and bolts up-close, Longstreth’s sonic experiments look like random, disconnected colors: heady, idiosyncratic layers of virtuosic electric guitar drizzle, flourishes of machine-gun percussion, spasms of disgruntled noise and the clockwork female harmonies of his trusted back-up vocalizers. But when you step back against the gallery wall, so to speak, and give his music the space it deserves (and even requires), the chaos starts to take shape.

Longstreth’s music exists in a universe totally unto itself—and his free-spirited, savant-like approach to songwriting ensures that his name is slung through the mud as often as it’s praised. Those who hate Dirty Projectors hate them passionately; and ironically, they hate them for the same reasons so many worship the group’s every move.

The biggest reason for that divisiveness (besides Longstreth’s often off-putting, alien vocal presence) is his fondness for Big Concepts. Ever since he started recording music (originally as a solo bedroom project while studying music at Yale), Longstreth has tied his songs together with odd thematic links: 2005’s The Getty Address was structured as a quasi-opera about a suicidal Don Henley; on 2007’s funkier and more aggressive Rise Above (the first Dirty Projectors album recorded as a legitimate band), Longstreth attempted to re-interpret Black Flag’s hardcore punk debut, Damaged, after having not listened to it in 15 years; Mount Wittenberg Orca (a 2010 collaborative EP with Icelandic singer Björk) was a warm yet perplexing concept album about a family of whales, built largely on the swirling female vocal counterpoint and fluid, precise rhythms that also defined his sprawling critical and commercial breakthrough, Bitte Orca.

Swing Lo Magellan, Dirty Projectors’ sixth studio album, is startling for totally opposite reasons. Where albums like Rise Above and Bitte Orca glistened with immaculate performances and constantly toyed with structure, veering jarringly between tempos, time signatures, and textures in the course of a single track, Swing Lo Magellan is strikingly linear and sonically raw. They’ve flirted with pop in the past, albeit indirectly (Bitte Orca single “Stillness is the Move” sounds like Beyonce tripping on acid), but Magellan achieves a zen-like focus unlike anything else in their peculiar discography. In Longstreth’s own words, this is “an album of songs,” a conscious attempt to strip away the technical and conceptual fussiness of their past work and explore what makes a pop song tick. Behind its unguarded intimacy and musical vulnerability, Magellan has heart.

“You could say that we’re suffering from realness,” Longstreth laughs from his fifth-floor room at Brooklyn’s Wythe Hotel during a grueling press day. “You know that Kanye line? It’s hard in a context of digital music—and with the way we consume music now—to let something be raw, you know? It’s so easy to correct it, and it’s easy to make the idea clearer, or to make the performance a little bit more…straight-up. But that’s not what this is about. That’s the goal—I thinks sometimes in the larger context of digital music and stuff, to let yourself sound like that, people will think you’re a crazy person. But I guess that’s a risk that the album takes. It feels not necessarily bolder but just truer to not do that and to let these performances be what they are—us singing in a room. We’re musicians playing these songs.”

And for all its brilliance, Bitte Orca never sounded like musicians “singing in a room.”

“It rose out of good instincts. You’re like, ‘This is some really weird music we’re trying to do,’ and you just want to make sure all the parts are coherent, that they read correctly, and that people are going to be able to understand what we’re trying to do. But then you end up with something that’s a little bit inert. And so I think there might be an idea we’re putting forward with this album about realness.”

That “realness” makes sense when you consider how these songs came to life. Swing Lo Magellan is the result of an intense songwriting pilgrimage: Longstreth, a Brooklyn resident, journeyed four hours northwest to the woods of Delaware County, New York, where he spent an entire year writing and recording music in a creepy—and possibly haunted—house that had been vacated for two decades. Burned out from the unrelenting blur of touring, he stepped out of his comfort zone and re-adjusted his work methods, relishing the solitude of his wooded retreat—mingling with the locals, battling off the elements (including an especially brutal winter, which brought knee-deep snows). Inside, he immersed himself in the craft of songwriting, fashioning the bug-infested attic into a studio, accompanied periodically by his bandmates (vocalist-guitarist Amber Coffman, vocalist Haley Dekle, bassist Nat Baldwin and drummer Brian McOmber).

Longstreth is a firm believer in the “crop rotation approach” to songwriting, constantly shifting his methods in order to keep himself guessing. That’s no exception with Swing Lo Magellan.

“I constantly try to do new things, you know? I try to make sure it feels like I’m stumbling forward without any goddamn clue what’s going on. And it’s pretty much always like that anyway, but I like to switch it around. Sometimes I’ll start with a beat, and other times, I’m your dude sitting on the edge of his bed with a guitar, strumming out some fucking chords. Or start with an idea in your head about…a ‘move’ or something like that. But it just varies from time to time what the kernel is and the size of the kernel.”

Over the course of that year, his crops grew aplenty. He ended up with at least 70 ideas (beats, fragments, or even “moves,” as Longstreth calls them), which were whittled down to a 40 finished demos and then, eventually, Magellan’s 12 wide-reaching-yet-tuneful tracks. It sounds like an agonizing process, but for Longstreth, it was a necessary exploration—figuring out which songs needed to belong together.

“It wasn’t really whittling,” Longstreth interjects. “The thing is that prior Dirty Projects albums have largely preceded from a single idea that becomes an entire record, whether it’s re-writing a Black Flag album from memory or telling some story about Amber singing to a pod of whales or something like that, you know? This time around, I just got obsessed with the craft of songwriting, I guess, just what a song is, what a song can do, what a song can mean, what it can be. And so I didn’t really write with any kind of album in mind—I didn’t really have a specific timetable in terms of turning out this year’s model or anything like that. I just really wanted to pursue this obsession, and I just kept on writing songs until I was done writing them. And that turned out to be about that number of songs.”

“I think a lot of the songs from that era are fucking good,” he continues. “I don’t think it’s like ‘whittling’ or ‘winnowing’ or anything like that. These 12 kind of ran together as a pack. They suggested themselves as an LP out of a process that wasn’t really an LP process, so I just let them be that. They just kind of started suggesting correspondences, you know? There are little threads that showed up, tying them all together. I think some of those are lyrical, and some of them are musical.”

That thread is “realness.” Magellan may be Longstreth’s most immediate, listener-friendly effort simply because of its stripped-down focus—but it’s also unguarded in ways that feel revelatory in the Pro Tools-dominated 21st century indie-verse. In an age where every indie-rock song sounds polished and pitch-corrected, Magellan’s downright dirtiness feels, oddly, like a breath of fresh air.

From a recording standpoint, Longstreth embraced a first-take approach, favoring spontaneity and happy accidents over complex layering and sophisticated refinement.

A good example: on the glitchy, electronic lullaby “See What She Seeing,” Longstreth accidentally sang the lyric, “Tell me the way to the orchid,” but originally, the line was meant to be “orchard” (“When I was doing the vocal, my mind just changed the word spontaneously, and I just let it be that way”). The sweetly sleepy (and surprisingly Motown-indebted) “Impregnable Question” might be the band’s most soulful, emotional moment to date: “Part of this imperative to be direct definitely extends to the way we recorded it. It felt so necessary to just be real. A lot of my singing on there is the first time I ever sang those songs out loud, and ‘Impregnable Question,’ that’s the only time I’ve sung that song. And it was about 10 minutes after I wrote those lyrics.”

Throughout, his voice sounds strained and grizzled, as if he recorded his takes after—well—a year spent locked away in a haunted house. There’s an openness, an honesty on Magellan, and it really shines through given the tracks’ spacious arrangements. Renowned as not only one of the most creative and versatile guitarists in indie-rock but in all of rock music period, Longstreth decided to shed that artistic skin in order to break out of his comfort zone. There are exceptions: The snaky “Maybe That Was It” lurches and fumbles through tempos and time-signatures with Longstreth squiggling out gorgeous, grungy electric leads over McOmber’s crumbling percussion. But Magellan always puts melody first.

Lead single “Gun Has No Trigger” is built almost entirely on a crisp, metronomic rhythm section, with Longstreth’s naked voice cracking and warbling over top. When the band recently debuted the track live on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, it was almost awkward to see Longstreth in his stationary stance, clad entirely in black, crooning ominously over his band’s lean groove. Behind him stood his reliably pitch-perfect female vocalists, lined neatly in a row. Instead of the wild, art-damaged dysfunction of their typical live performances, Dirty Projectors appeared before audiences just how they projected themselves on record: bare, hypnotic, direct.

“It came pretty naturally, I guess,” Longstreth says, in regards to this new approach. “And it has to do with just where I wanted to go. I guess looking at the things that Dirty Projectors has done before and thinking about these amazing colors and these unique textures and these crazy things that we’ve done with guitars and so on, maybe it’s the contrarian in me again, but I feel like I just want to turn around and do the exact opposite of that. And that’s something I think that’s been a part of every album we’ve made. With each album, I have a new or maybe higher perspective on what it would be to do the opposite thing. And this time, it just seemed like the boldest and also the most fulfilling thing that I could try as a writer would be to just use simple tools and to say something simple and see if there would still be something irreducibly unique about it. So it really just kind of felt like it was in the key, or the spirit of all this—not to go really crazy on the arrangements or the orchestrations. I’m more concerned with just the substance of the song itself. And I think it’s thrilling when there’s just emptiness in the speakers. The things that are happening just sound huge.”

One element of that hugeness is the incredibly versatile contemporary-classical sextet yMusic, who add a layer of subtle harmonic texture to Swing Lo Magellan.

“yMusic is the chamber group that I wish existed 10 years ago. Those dudes are incredible. They’re the best players in New York, and they’re versatile as hell as musicians. They listen to everything, and they do everything. They’re super comfortable in any context you can throw at them, so they’re just the logical people to call up when I was writing arrangements for a couple songs on the album.”

“We did something I think we’d never done before,” Longstreth continues. “I wrote the arrangements for them—I guess normally they roll in and figure out the arrangements themselves. But what I love about yMusic is that it’s really the nucleus of an orchestra just in three musicians—three strings, and three flute, horn, and clarinet. But everybody plays everything within those—the flautist can play all the flutes; the clarinet player can play all the clarinets and saxophones; the horn player can play trumpet, all the horns, flugelhorn. So you can really go anywhere with that unit. It’s just really exciting—I love colors, you know? I love Messiaen and Stravinsky, and Ligeti and stuff like that. So with something like Dance For You, the bridge is really me trying to write the kind of writing that Ligeti invented in a piece like Atmospheres from 1961, which is just a piece of music that has just mesmerized me for years now. I got my hands on a copy of the score for it, thinking I would understands what the hell he was doing, but it’s still a fucking mystery. But those guys were so cool, and that was different from anything they’d ever done before. It was fucking fun working it out with them.”

But Longstreth wasn’t only trying to harness a new musical direction on Swing Lo Magellan. Part of his new direction involved cutting out some of his lyrical clutter. In the past, he reveled in creating weird poetic mazes of psychedelic ambiguity and weird specifics. On the Bitte Orca standout “Temecula Sunrise,” he sings, “I live in a new construction home / I live on the strip behind the dealership, yeah / I live in a greenhouse, and I am getting wasted, yeah / Temperature rising / I can feel it all the way down / And what hits the spot, yeah, like Gatorade? / You and me, baby, hitting the spot all night.” Magellan doesn’t venture into McCartney levels of lyrical simplicity (The glowing “Just from Chevron” reads like an epic poem about gasoline and death…or something), but as the album winds on, Longstreth gradually sinks into a comfy, sophistication, with a parade of shockingly un-ambiguous words.

Instead of flaunting their artsiness, Longstreth’s words now breathe with charming, vulnerable clarity. The themes are more universal, too: “About to Die” is a dramatic, tongue-in-cheek reflection on death (“Your life must surely be ending and trembling / You realize you never lived a day at all / And it’s all your fault / It all seems unspeakably vile”). Closer “Irresponsible Tune” is a simple love letter to music, with almost naïve charm that radiates its message: “But without songs, we’re lost, and life is pointless, harsh and long / In my heart, there is music; In my mind is a song / But in my eyes, a world crooked, fucked-up and wrong / Sing all day, record and play, Drums and bass and guitar.”

It’s unclear if these words are coming from an honest place or if Longstreth is speaking through some kind of simpler muse—after all, this whole “songwriting” thing is a new venture for Dirty Projectors. But there’s no denying this album’s heart. Over a spidery guitar figure and dusty hi-hat on the ballad “The Socialites,” Coffman delivers Longstreth’s lovesick words with a palpable sense of longing, like a sheepish child peering through a playground gate: “I think she’s the prettiest lady I’ve ever seen / Her hair, it has meaning and volume and such a sheen / Sometimes, I think maybe I could go and talk to her (…) / I’m gonna try combing my hair in a thousand ways / Maybe he will notice and maybe look my way.”

On “See What See Seeing,” Longstreth is a dejected drifter (“lonely and forgotten in the frozen world, scorned in my desire, ignored by all the girls”), but on “Impregnable Question,” he sounds like an old man renewing his wedding vows: “Through time and through many a situation / We both looked forward side by side / We have shared it all, we have both stood tall / What is mine is yours, in happiness and in strife / You are my love, and I want you in my life.”

“I agree with you that there are kind of bigger themes,” Longstreth reflects. “I think part of it is just that I sort of let go more a little more on this album. When you tour for tow years on an album like Bitte Orca, you come away with the feeling that what you’re out there representing, you want to be as connected to it as the audience you’re playing it for. I feel that some of my earlier lyrics are exploring some kind of idea I’m interesting in—or something like that on some sort of, I drink a cup of coffee and get all buzzed about some shit I read in the newspaper or something. But this time out, I tried to go to a little bit of a deeper place, or a place I wasn’t as conscious of myself as a specific individual, I guess. I let go a little bit, which just felt also like a very new thing to do.”

“I feel like a great song is so much better—or so much smarter—than the dumbass who wrote it.”