Experimental rock can be sodden, cerebral stuff — our forefathers called it “prog” — but Longstreth and his bandmates have always brought a refreshing playfulness to their work, finding fresh tactics for balancing airy vocal harmonies, sputtering percussion and flickering guitar lines.
The Brooklyn-based band may have peaked early with 2007’s “Rise Above,” an album of Black Flag covers that transformed some of the most punishing rock songs ever written into fluttery folk ballads. It was an arresting effort, but some listeners had a hard time getting past the gimmick. And although the group’s 2009 follow-up, “Bitte Orca,” produced a stellar single, “Stillness Is the Move,” the rest of the album seemed uneven.
A few minutes in, “Swing Lo Magellan” bristles with promise. The opening track, “Offspring Are Blank,” pulls back the curtain with a chorus of humming voices and clapping hands as the frontman sings about the proliferation of humanity: “There was a single one/Then there were ten/Ten made a hundred/And a hundred-million.” But before the proceedings get too esoteric, the song explodes with classic rock guitar riffage that may trigger involuntary head-banging.
It’s followed by “About to Die,” a delightfully chirpy tune about existential dread. “Look there, the mirror,” Longstreth sings during the song’s bridge, “A zombie stands staring, vacant and glaring/Pronouncing your name as his own.”
The music works against that harsh imagery, with drums that pop like Calgon bubbles and co-vocalists Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle softly ooh-ooh-oooh-ing in the background, as if being conducted by Phil Spector.
The prettier the song, the heavier the tale Longstreth has to tell. “Just From Chevron” is a lament for a man who dies in an offshore drilling accident, sung as if it were a nursery rhyme. The soft patter of clapping hands keeps the tempo, but guitars and drums eventually barge into the mix, tangling themselves into little knots, proving that a Dirty Projectors song can’t stay simple for more than a minute or so.
Other songs sag in their complexity. “Maybe That Was It,” which Longstreth says he wrote as rejoinder to the title of the 2001 breakout Strokes album “Is This It,” is a slow, meandering slog of a tune that sidesteps the propulsive rhythms that make so much of this band’s music go.
And even though “Unto Caesar” picks up the pace, it’s still the most irksome track on the disc. Heavily littered with snippets of studio chatter, it spells out the fact that, yes, this topsy-turvy music was made by actual human beings.
But that should already be clear to anyone who has listened to the album’s 11 other tracks. “Swing Lo Magellan” is surely the Dirty Projectors’ most tender and intimate album. But it’s still only the second-best.
“Offspring Are Blank,” “About to Die,” “Just From Chevron”