***1/2 (out of four)
Dirty Projectors songs don't generally work like regular songs. They clatter, contradict and undermine themselves. They are full of syncopation. They abruptly veer away from their own melodies. They bounce between fragmented sonic elements. Listening to Dirty Projectors (whose last proper studio record was 2009’s fascinating “Bitte Orca”) can be a delicate undertaking: It seems like the songs could collapse at any moment.
While their music scans as Brooklyn indie rock, the band's experimentalist bent is probably more in line with an act like R&B singer The-Dream, who, armed with a strong technical mastery of craft, is interested in figuring out the tiny elements that make songs work. Dirty Projectors deal as much in compelling moments – for instance, the sudden, guitar-driven choruses on “Swing Lo Magellan” opener and highlight “Offspring Are Blank” – as they do in cohesive songs.
“Swing Lo Magellan” does cohere, though, despite its self-consciousness, echoing both the progressive attitudes and well-worn sounds of artists like David Bowie, late Beatles and, at times, Bob Dylan. The album is often quieter, more lyrically tender, and more straightforward in its songwriting than the band's previous work, particularly on standout tracks “Dance For You” and “The Socialites.” The lyrics on “Irresponsible Tune,” as with many parts of the album, contemplate the music as a concept, concluding, “Without songs we're lost, and life is pointless, harsh and long.”
Driven by both their companionable lyrical approach to complicated feelings and stirring instrumental flourishes, the Dirty Projectors songs on “Swing Lo Magellan” play this guiding role and, as a result, very much work like regular songs.