It’s nice, amidst the playground of bullshit that the music industry has in many ways become, to see genius projected out into the great unknown. Listening to Swing Lo Magellan I smile and nod, I gape in awe, I listen over and over again questioning, but mostly, I just hover on that brink of emotion right between crying and laughing. This is the first record by the Dirty Projectors I have ever listened to for some reason, and though I look forward to hearing the rest of their back catalogue, I’m glad it was this one I fell in love with. I explained how I felt upon hearing this record to a friend last night as something like discovering a new window in a house you’ve lived in all your life. Familiar like childhood, far away like home and funny like fate, this record is the answer to a question I was too scared to ask for fear no one knew the answer.
But receiving the answer without having to ask? A meeting of many souls within a black vinyl record? This is the type of exultant space the ear and mind occupy while listening to thundering guitars of take-no-prisoners album opener “The Offspring Are Blank.” This song delivers unabashedly powerful Guns N’ Roses guitar noise and drums, heedlessly skipping past the over-used and over-worshipped Beatles and Stones rock tones.
But to hear Longstreth’s lyrics, the band’s harmonizing, his philosophizing, the birth of innumerable new weird electronic noises, the incorporation of tribal-like drums on the second track? It sounds like no one. It sounds like no one else. It sounds like the Dirty Projectors. This secretly unique sound that starts off “About To Die” contains a sex appeal and a foreignness usually reserved for steamy jungles and ancient rituals. Following upon the heels of this is the James Bond drama of “Gun Has No Trigger” adorned with choir-like harmonies that would put the Mormons themselves to shame. To hear it hung all together like a series of trapeze artists or the most elaborate airborne mobile decoration, is pure bliss.
There’s a certain yearning that exists among some of us, that denies our involvement in a culture that has produced the monstrosities we now live with, that begs there must be more, that looks around helplessly for companions among a sea of blank, pallid faces. “Dance For You” captures this yearning with a pinprick precision so full of pain, hope and wonder I started crying before I even finished my first listen and cry every time since. “There is an answer / I haven’t found it / But I will keep dancing till I do.”
When I listen to this record I feel a connection to something I have been searching for my whole life. I hear my same concerns and visions spun into incredible melodies and harmonies that sting me with their similarity to my own emotions and that stun me with their vivid originality.
The ability to weave in and out of the past and the present, to sift through the expanses of time we are confronted with, that long dry desert of time, and come across the only oases within that deathly stretch, without falling prey to the mirages, is a feat within itself. While songs like “Swing Lo Magellan” and “Maybe That Was It” tip their hats to the past, they’re never mired down in navel-gazing folk obsession or rock imitation, both tracks raise their weary heads and march forward, leaving the tempting genres of the past to the past.
The correspondence of the best parts of the past marching alongside soldiers of future sound is what turns this record into a cipher for us. We’re the generation of too much debt, very little chance at any sort of job we care about and even less chance at finding any love or meaning in a fractured, phobic and foolish society. We’ve seen too much, spent too much, we’re too cynical and too broke, we’re too tired and too guarded. We are constantly hungry and flush with plenty, we are indolent and impoverished. This record calls out the strength in us to drop all that we’ve been saddled with, to instead search out, cull our past for its wonders, not with backwards glancing, but with our eyes fixed firmly on our own time, our own purpose. Not to ignore the future or wonder about it — but to create it. The Dirty Projectors created 2012 with this record, they shaped the attitude surrounding music for the rest of the year. They re-instilled within me the singular will to contribute to a better future. To look to the horizon with hope and power instead of despair and exhaustion.
The ingredients through which a feat this large was achieved include self-realization, love and passionate performance. Has anything good ever come into the world without at least one of these three things? Don’t think there’s a chance that in an age of achievable digital perfection “Unto Caesar” is accidentally set in the mode of a live recording session. A hodgepodge of purposefully imperfect harmonies, a hair or two off the mark, the inclusion of criticism of the song in the recording, a solitary male performer clapping at the wrong times and indiscernibly wailing along with the rest. Longstreth gives us the poem and the marginalia – a feat that reflects not only his artistic stance in a world of filler and fluff – but fleshes out our perspective on the band in a way we crave, in a way that with a record like this, we need. The heavenly realization that these are kids, just like us, messing around in the studio, just trying to make some art they love.
In closing, Dave, for he feels like a first-name basis best friend at this point, delivers “Irresponsible Tune” with the solemnity of a closing benediction and the sturdy hope of a pioneer. He takes out the secret talisman usually kept safe in a carved ivory box or only passed down in oral tradition and freely gives it to us: “with our songs, we are outlaws / with our songs we’re alone / but without songs we’re lost and life is pointless, harsh and long.” We are outlaws, the structure of our society forces us to head for the hills out into the back country and make our own way, because those in charge have become irresponsibly corrupt. We’re alone out there as we scheme with our meager supplies and the powers that be against us, but within this freedom we also find the strength to rediscover what we want our lives to be, and the will to make them into that.
If for some reason you haven’t heard this record yet, do yourself a favor and stream it over at The Guardian, (top notch publication that Guardian too).