During “Unto Caesar,” the penultimate song of Dirty Projectors’ new album Swing Lo Magellan, good-natured studio banter intrudes upon the music in the middle of the song. “When should we bust into harmony?” and later, “That doesn’t make any sense, what you just said.” These are watershed moments in the album, the first revealing humanity and the second ironic self-awareness. Known for their unusual song structures and complicated instrumental parts, it is easy to assume that the Dirty Projectors are robotic intellectuals insulated in their own high-minded world. But with these remarks and the amiable campfire-style singing they interrupt, the band proves that assumption wrong.
Dave Longstreth, the frontman of Dirty Projectors, has said in interviews that this album is more focused on songwriting rather than the complexity of their previous work. This is evident on many of the songs on Swing Lo Magellan, especially the title track and “Irresponsible Tune.” Both of these forego the female vocal harmonies and shifting textures that marked the previous album Bitte Orca in favor of 50s- and 60s-style pop. “Swing Lo Magellan” sounds like it could have been written in California during the the heyday of the Beach Boys, and “Irresponsible Tune” features only Longstreth’s voice and guitar strums, with doo-wop backing vocals. Yet this is not the kind of music that is wanted or expected from Dirty Projectors. Longstreth’s vocals are too nasal and weird to work as the star of a poppy song, and both songs omit the most attractive part of the band’s sound: the beautifully harmonized female voices. “Unto Caesar,” “The Gun Has No Trigger,” and “Maybe That Was It” on the other hand are examples of the new style that do succeed. The first, one of the standout tracks, warms the listener with its exuberance and TV on the Radio-esque horns. And in a better world, “The Gun Has No Trigger” would be a successful radio single in the way it effortlessly oozes through tonalities.
Some of the album does continue in the style of Bitte Orca, most notably “Just From Chevron” and “The Socialites.” Which is perfectly acceptable, as that trademark sound is strangely compelling. It’s also not as though the band has scorned evolution; the whole album basks on the sunny beach of 60s songwriting. The amount in which that influence is evident varies by song, but it is almost always incorporated into the Dirty Projectors’ idiosyncratic style.