Dirty Projectors' Big Empty

The wide open spaces of Swing Lo Magellan

An intense touring itinerary followed. "Tour is such a fragmentary experience, which is why it's so thrilling but also so exhausting. There were these hidden GarageBands that I barely even realized I was making," he recalls. "I went into this folder, and there were all these weird little fragments. Listening to them, I felt a little like Jason Bourne." In between festival dates, Longstreth and girlfriend Coffman found themselves still in tour mode but with more time on their hands. "Amber and I felt there was more energy in staying in travel mode, so we would go on these drives upstate: Ashokan, Phoenicia, Shandaken, the Hudson Valley," he says. "And it's all so fucking cheesy, going antiquing and the like." The two began to explore the wilds further west, and when it came time to write and record songs for the next record, they wound up staying in Delaware County, near the Pepacton Reservoir.

Longstreth is quick to say that Swing Lo Magellan was not simply birthed from the solitude of the wilderness. "The narrative of 'the band goes upstate and unpacks the 12-string' is not the story," he clarifies, whispering the word "Walden" as if verboten. OK, there is no story, but there was a stratagem: Discard the processes that had created the entire oeuvre of the Projectors and start anew. "It's just this contrarian streak in me or whatever, but I love to just let it go and try to just go do the opposite," he says. "And it seemed like the most daring thing that I could do would be to just use simple tools to just make something irreducibly personal and kind of"—he pauses to find the exact word—"true." He says he discarded countless songs that simply re-jiggered Bitte Orca's blueprint until he reached new ground, musically and lyrically. Rather than overanalyze the process of writing, Longstreth admits: "This was much more 'first thought, best thought.'"

Hand claps, harmonized "mmms" and "ooos" suggest that opener "Offspring Are Blank" might be campfire-friendly—at least until the chorus, when Longstreth uncorks his most Guitar Player–satisfying riff. It sets the table for an album that soars from the interpersonal to the biblical to the petrochemical with a sound that is intimate one moment, cloaked in gossamer strings the next, and then suddenly stratospheric. Patty-cake claps alone power "Just From Chevron" while a rubbery, tricky giddyup underpins "See What She's Seeing."

Up and away: Dirty Projectors
Jason Frank Rothenberg
Up and away: Dirty Projectors

Sonically, the album feels sprightly and buoyant even while its lyrics suggest something baleful just beneath its music: shadows that lengthen from the sky to the ground, a dark and hateful star, cyanide plains, a man dying in ice, a world crooked fucked-up and wrong. Or as Longstreth sings on "Maybe That Was It": "The surface rip and bloom with rot." That portent gets ballasted by Longstreth's sweetest, most heart-on-sleeve songwriting to date: the piano-led "Impregnable Question" and winsome "See What She's Seeing."

"Every song was its own world—like Revolver, where every song possesses its own emotional tone," Longstreth says. "Emptiness in speakers is something that I've been getting more and more into, in cutting something down to its most basic core and just letting that be there." At times, the album recalls not so much the Beatles' groundbreaking 1966 album but something more modest and revelatory: Bob Dylan's 1967 album John Wesley Harding.

Reclusive rather serving as generation's mouthpiece, Longstreth's songs feel similarly enigmatic now, providing no answers for the darkening world about him, only querying deeper. "All these songs are questions, every last one of them." Even the front photo, of Longstreth and Coffman with their upstate neighbor Gary, seems to echo that album's cover. (The band recorded a cover of "As I Went Out One Morning" as a Bitte Orca bonus track.) The title track invokes the great explorer in a manner akin to Dylan's outlaw-folk hero, and in the manner that many of Dylan's lyrics allude to the Bible, Longstreth cites Mark 12:17 on the equally anthemic and shambolic "Unto Caesar." "What I wanted to do with that song was something like Bruce Springsteen's 'Born in the USA,' that reverse sloganeering," Longstreth says. "That song's about learning when to give a shit and what to give a shit about, what to give yourself to."

What Longstreth gives himself to isn't quite revealed in our brief time together, and Swing Lo Magellan doesn't proffer any pat answers either. But after many albums that convoluted intent and favored complexity, Swing Lo Magellan shows a directness previously absent from the Dirty Projectors' discography and is all the more stunning because of it. "For me, I feel like I just want to fall back on this older idea of a song," Longstreth says at the interview's end. "A verse, chorus, bridge, words that you can hold in your hand and take with you." What's in your hands might be the only answer to be had.

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