When David Longstreth sat down with 40 finished demos to plan the sixth Dirty Projectors album, there was the potential for creative overload: He’s never had a problem piling numerous experiments atop each other, so the record could have become a grotesque Frankenstein’s monster of patched-together ideas. Instead, Swing Lo Magellan shows a surprising level of restraint, adding structure to what the band has done on previous records. The album is defined not by its progressions but by its purposeful diminishments: less orchestration, less vocal trickery, less international influence. While Longstreth’s music is never completely straightforward, Swing Lo Magellan is his most accessible set of songs to date. But more importantly, with some of the artistic muddle cleared away, the record makes an emotional connection his other albums haven’t.
Even when scaled back, Dirty Projectors is one of the more stylistically eclectic bands out there, mashing together math-rock guitar riffs, off-kilter harmonies, and jumbled rhythms and time signatures. Swing Lo Magellan has more of the peculiar pop hooks and oddly danceable arrangements that made critics swoon over 2009’s Bitte Orca; “About To Die,” which grooves along to stuttering drums, a plucked string riff, and a melodic croon, is a notable highlight. But where Longstreth’s quirks have often felt carefully calculated, here they come off as spontaneous improvisations or even mistakes. This relaxed, informal execution makes Swing Lo Magellan seem vulnerable, imperfect, and earnestly human. By easing off on all the wizardry—as impressive as it is—Longstreth creates room to actually feel something.
For example, the smeared guitar, off-tune keyboards, and percussive jitter that kick off “See What She Seeing” are initially in line with the sort of academic compositions for which the band is known. But when a gentle orchestral swell accents the brightly tender chorus, it becomes clear that the song isn’t a knotty display of technical proficiency, but rather a lush love ballad. In other places, the band conveys a warm affection with a minimalist approach: Glowing like sunshine through treetops, the quietly acoustic title track is both uncommonly conventional and sentimental. By the dazzlingly innovative and heartfelt record’s end, the band has worked in a bit of everything it has to offer, and offered it with winning sincerity.