Quirky, engaging, obtuse. All words I’d previously have attached to the work of Dirty Projectors. I’d liked but not loved their output up to this point. Interested enough to give each new release a listen but not exactly twitching in anticipation. And, I suspect, this ambivalence allowed ‘Swing Lo Magellan’ to unwittingly lay siege to my brain in the week running up to the start of the Olympics this summer. An incorrectly labelled pre-order had resulted in me opting for the ‘deluxe’ edition of the vinyl for this one but the packaging – all tip-on gatefold sleeve and embossed lettering for both the cover and the included lyric sheet – caught my imagination and I ensured that the free WAV downloads provided were on the iPod before we set out on a summer jaunt near Brighton. From the hummed opening notes of ‘Offspring Are Blank’, past the fantastically over-egged pronunciation of the phrase ’About To Die’ in its chorus and on to the throbbing ‘Gun Has No Trigger’, the opening trio on this record are enough to get anyone hooked. And so it was.
Day after day I would return to ‘Swing Lo Magellan’. It would rarely be my first choice but, at some point in proceedings, on it would go, again and again. It was catchy, it was clever and it was wonderfully arranged. David Longsteth’s vocals truly reach their peak on this record: masterfully controlled one moment, howling emotively the next. There is nothing wilfully awkward about this set of songs. It retains Dirty Projectors’ sonic quirks but puts the solid three minute so at the heart of its ambitions. And succeeds. The African influence on the guitar sounds is appreciable if not excessive, and – don’t worry – very much not in a Vampire Weekend kind of way.
Bucking the front-loaded album trend, two of the very finest songs on this wonderful collection reside on its second side. ‘Impregnable Question’ and ‘Irresponsible Tune’ are simple, vintage pop tunes. The piano on the former is foregrounded for the middle eight and, without being fancy, it is utterly spellbinding. Laden with hooks, if not attractive artwork, ‘Swing Lo Magellan’ is the surprise package of the year for me. It is one of two albums to truly change the way I think about a band. The other is still to come.