The Little One loves to go outside. Fortunately, we had the foresight to wire our porch for sound, so we often have the opportunity to appreciate music while hanging out in our backyard. When the weather is good, we’ll turn on the tunes while she blows bubbles or draws chalk scribbles on the concrete. She is growing increasingly verbal, so she constantly astounds us with her use of plain language to express what is on her mind. I was floored, however, when one afternoon she abruptly stopped her usual outdoor activities to enthusiastically join in with the chorus of this tune.
Swing Lo Magellan had been in constant rotation since I received it at Christmas, and About to Die, like many songs from the album, is infectiously tuneful. I was not surprised that she could identify it, but in this case, it wasn’t like when she used to garble out the Yeah Yeah Yeah Song last summer. It was very clear that she was singing the words to the song and even trying to match pitch. I admit that it was weird to hear her toddler voice sing the somewhat dark lyrics to this song so clearly and enthusiastically from the arena of our back lawn, but the song’s meaning is a little too opaque for me to worry too much.
In truth, I can't blame her for connecting with its playful nature. Throughout the album, the Dirty Projectors have a poetic approach to their lyrics that seems to be inspired by the sound of the syllables as much as the meaning of the words. As a metaphor for summing up the album, though, the juxtoposition presented by a toddler performing About to Die seems fitting, because Swing Low Magellan is best described in terms of its juxtapositions.
Lead singer David Longstreth’s vocal approach has a hint of intellectualized derangement that conjures David Byrne, and there are subtle Africanisms in the melodic figures and highlife styled guitars that might reinforce this impression, but even so, the Dirty Projectors don’t objectively sound like the Talking Heads. In some ways, they conjure a more classic, pre-"World Music" feel, recalling Hendrix, Orbison, or even (thanks to the instrumental precision of the backup vocals) the Andrews Sisters. The sometimes angsty performances, however, usually betray the contemporary context of Swing Low Magellan.
Even though I think that Swing Lo Magellan is impressive in the way that it navigates these juxtapositions, I can’t bring myself to say that it is varied in its style. The album is incredibly cohesive in spite of its eccentricities because, despite its stylistic extremes, it hangs its hat on outstanding songwriting and emotive musicianship. The Dirty Projectors have their own unique approach that could only be the product of experience, risk-taking, and collaboration, and deliver it with an artistic conviction that holds Swing Lo Magellan together as an outstanding album experience. Its layered and complex, but so relaxed and accessible that even a baby could do it - or a toddler, at least.