“Swing Lo Magellan”
There’s a telling moment near the end of the bewildering new Dirty Projectors album in which Amber Coffman — one of this Brooklyn indie-rock outfit’s two female singers — lets the listener in on a secret: “Uh, that doesn’t make any sense, what you just said.” She’s evidently speaking to frontman David Longstreth, and given that he’d just rhymed “mercenary Barbary” with “martyr’s morbid poetry,” she may well be right; Longstreth can seem more invested in the music of words than in their meaning.
A genuine admission or an insider’s feint, the morsel of studio chatter reflects the way Dirty Projectors move between art-school ambition and pop-song utility on “Swing Lo Magellan.” It’s a cake-and-eat-it-too record whose beautiful melodies (“Just from Chevron”) and sumptuous grooves (“Offspring Are Blank”) rarely arrive without some probing self-examination. “With our songs we are outlaws,” Longstreth sings in the tender rockabilly ballad “Irresponsible Tune”; in “About to Die” the band keeps knocking a loping rhythm off-balance, as though anxious about its value on the dance floor.
Like 2009’s breakthrough “Bitte Orca” (which spawned the underground semi-hit “Stillness Is the Move”), “Swing Lo Magellan” feels as inspired by big-ticket R&B as by cultish guitar music: You could envision Cee Lo Green bellying his way through “Gun Has No Trigger.” But Dirty Projectors still get itchy at the prospect of sleek surfaces, and their uneasiness is a thrill to behold.