Before Dirty Projectors’ David Longstreth sings his first lead vocal on the Brooklyn sextet’s sixth album, the bandleader clears his throat. Swing Lo Magellan is that kind of album — pointedly casual. It mixes dryly recorded, seemingly live-in-the-studio performances with strings/flute/clarinet/trumpet accompaniment on several songs by the avant-classical chamber ensemble yMusic. Most of Longstreth and Amber Coffman’s guitars sound as though they were plugged directly into their amps without effects pedals or distortion, and the band’s harmonies appear similarly blunt and candid: Even when they emulate the twists and turns of contemporary R&B, there’s nary an AutoTuned note. Yet few would deem anything here folksy, artless or improvised: This is strategically unpolished stuff from the complicated heads of well-educated aesthetes.
The result is both immediate and puzzling. More than ever, Longstreth writes accessible pop melodies, but he still puts the accents and the syncopations in unexpected places, like on the otherwise uncharacteristically direct love ballad “Impregnable Question.” His singing evinces both the rawness of indie rock and the heart-on-sleeve emotiveness of mainstream pop, while the accompaniment boasts the bumpy time signatures and wrench-throwing extra measures the bandleader mastered while studying music composition at Yale.
And then there are the lyrics, which alternate between straightforward statements and allegorical poetry without any shifts in tone to suggest what’s what. It’s implied from its title that “Just from Chevron” deals with the evils of the oil industry, but Longstreth intentionally garbles some of the key lines; this song, like much of the rest, requires close, repeated studying to fully reveal itself. The notable exception is the last one, “Irresponsible Tune,” which offers strummed acoustic guitar, bucketloads of reverb, and haunted background harmonies to suggest the gospel outings of Elvis Presley. In it, the toiling musician despairs over the ultimate significance of his artistic endeavors in a violent world until, suddenly, a bird at his window capriciously chirps. It’s a moment that, unlike the enigmatic rest, needs no explanation.