By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Dave Longstreth is seated in a fifth-floor room in New York's Wythe Hotel in a white T-shirt and slacks. It is June 2012 and his once-spiky brown hair now hangs past his jawline, his bangs pulled behind his ears. The lone item out of place in the white room is his button-down shirt, strewn across the back of a chair on this muggy day. Longstreth is in the midst of a two-day marathon of interview sessions to discuss Swing Lo Magellan (Domino), the band's strongest and most resplendent album to date, subtly referred to in the one-sheet as "an album of songwriting."
"The song is a marriage of sound and words, but within that there's a feeling that arises from that that you can't encapsulate verbally," Longstreth explains. "It feels both bold and vulnerable because it's in the song now and everyone can hear it. In a way, there's very little to talk about." At that, he laughs. "Me saying this on interview number 57."
Calling Swing Lo Magellan an album about songwriting feels disingenuous. Yet strangely, wondrously, stunningly, that's sorta what it boils down to — though even with Longstreth at his simplest, things are never quite that simple.
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After dropping out of Yale and relocating to Portland to release his debut album, The Graceful Fallen Mango, Longstreth returned to Yale to finish his degree, and with each subsequent Dirty Projectors release he further refined and complicated the band's sonic conceits. Albums were erected around dreaming sheep, Cortez the Killer, the Eagles' Don Henley, or an empty cassette of Black Flag's Damaged. Longstreth's voice vacillated between murmuring minstrel, castrati yip, and Chet Baker croon, colored in by female vocals; he helmed a 10-piece orchestra then chopped it up via sampler; he strummed his acoustic guitar like Dada night at Café Wha? and then like King Sunny Ade gone hardcore shredder. He juxtaposed all of the above and says in hindsight that such albums were "this process of layering and adding and taking things away, of counter-intuitive thought."
All of which set the stage for Bitte Orca. "Bitte Orca was an emblem of the touring band that we had become," Longstreth explains. "And it was engineered to be like a caricature — almost a cartoon — of a live rock band, because a rock band in 2010 has to be a cartoon of a rock band." The core of the album foregrounded the voices of Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian, and Haley Dekle, and in subsequent band photo shoots he angled his lanky frame as if to hide behind them, the fieldhand rather than the landowner: "I'm not very interested in myself, per se."
In between festival dates, Longstreth and girlfriend Coffman found themselves still in tour mode but with more time on their hands. "Amber and I felt there was more energy in staying in travel mode, so we would go on these drives upstate: Ashoken, Phonecia, Shandekan, the Hudson Valley," he says. "And it's all so fucking cheesy, going antiquing and the like." The two began to explore the wilds further west, and when it came time to write and record songs for the next record they wound up staying in Delaware County, near the Pepacton Reservoir.
Longstreth's quick to say that Swing Lo Magellan was not simply birthed from the solitude of the wilderness. "The narrative of 'the band goes upstate and unpacks the 12-string' is not the story," he clarifies, whispering the word "Walden" as if verboten. Okay, there is no story, but there was a stratagem: discard the processes that had created the entire oeuvre of the Projectors and start anew. "It's just this contrarian streak in me or whatever, but I love to just let it go and try to just go do the opposite," he says. "And it seemed like the most daring thing that I could do would be to just use simple tools to just make something irreducibly personal and kind of" — he pauses to find the exact word — "true." He says he discarded countless songs that simply re-jiggered Bitte Orca's blueprint until he reached an album that soars from the interpersonal to the biblical to the petrochemical. Rather than over-analyze the process of writing, Longstreth admits, "This was much more first thought, best thought."
Sonically, the album feels sprightly and buoyant even while its lyrics suggest something baleful just beneath its music: shadows that lengthen from the sky to the ground, a dark and hateful star, cyanide plains, a man dying in ice, a world crooked, fucked-up, and wrong.
"Every song was its own world — like Revolver, where every song possesses its own emotional tone," Longstreth says. "Emptiness in speakers is something that I've been getting more and more into, in cutting something down to its most basic core and just letting that be there." At times, the album recalls not so much the Beatles' groundbreaking 1966 album but something more modest and revelatory: Bob Dylan's 1967 album John Wesley Harding.
After many albums that convoluted intent and favored complexity, Swing Lo Magellan shows a directness previously absent from the Dirty Projectors discography and is all the more stunning because of it. "For me, I feel like I just want to fall back on this older idea of a song," Longstreth says. "A verse, chorus, bridge, words that you can hold in your hand and take with you." What's in your hands might be the only answer to be had.