Jul 16, 2012

On Masterpieces and Magellan

How can you tell a masterpiece? It may be harder to recognize or even make them now, in an age of single-song downloads, longform episodic TV narrative, and multi-year film franchises; we seem to live in a time in which we expect to prolong good things, if not quite great things, in dribs and drabs over months and years, and for our art and entertainment to accumulate the lived-in familiarity of beloved friends rather than the life-shattering impact of a brilliant stranger whose arrival makes us quit our job, move across the country, or otherwise rearrange our lives around what's left after the shattering.

Apart from its aesthetic and experiential qualities, this doling out of cultural product can be a fine way to create economies of scale and amortize production costs, not to mention employ artists in an ongoing way (more or less) doing the work they love (more or or less) without the pressure of making The Best Thing That's Ever Been Made. And it's not a bad bargain for audiences, either: It's a lot easier, and in many ways more sane and humane, to live in a world where we all manage to find our groove, our tastes, and go on about curating our Netflix queue and our Spotify playlists (and, if we're of a certain age, order our subscription seasons of theater and the symphony). I mean, how many life-changing, conversion-level experiences do we have space and time for our in our lives? Maybe no more than we have for falling in love.

These thoughts have been stirred by the arrival this past week of the new Dirty Projectors album, Swing Lo Magellan, which has hit me with a force I wasn't prepared for, despite my having loved their last two records, Rise Above and Bitte Orca. Those records felt like tangible, irreversible leaps forward for art pop; lead Projector Dave Longstreth essentially uses the standard rock quartet, plus an indispensable complement of harmony singers for which the term "backup" is entirely inadequate, to compose music as dense but delightful as the best music ever written for bands, from Mozart to Ellington to Zeppelin.

Now, if one measure of great art is that it not only seduces us at first acquaintance but holds up to further, even seemingly infinite examination, the trick with a clever, almost freakishly talented artist like Longstreth has been to strike the balance between immediate appeal and embedded intricacy; we won't stick around to tease out the layers of a complicated work if it doesn't tease us a little into loving it first. These are matters of taste, but for me that balance was struck beautifully on Rise Above and in particular on the sweeping Bitte Orca, which included both a faux R&B single, "Stillness Is the Move," that could be danced to without a sprain, as well as the abstruse but uncannily exuberant time-signature clusterfuck "Temecula Sunrise":

I was prepared for more unsettling brilliance of that sort with the new record, and for the slight but entirely pleasing effort of appreciation that goes with it—more brain-tickling, and occasional booty-shaking; more nourishing headphone snacks for my commute. Instead, what floors me about Swing Lo Magellan is that Longstreth has somehow managed to make a record that's both instantly lovable, light and smiling as a summer breeze, and deeply, inexhaustibly beautiful. He's broken that delicate balancing act in half like a twig; he's turned the dial way up on both the treble of pop sweetness and the bass of compositional complexity and met us in the mid-range. The center holds, and at the moment it feels to me like the center of the universe.

Apologies for the hyperbole, but this is why I started this post with thoughts on masterpieces and their rarity; I haven't fallen for a record this hard for decades, I don't think. Individual songs, yes (cf. Tom Waits' "Hell Broke Luce"), and more recently much of the output of certain artists (Rufus Wainwright, Midlake, Janelle Monae, Alabama Shakes, Fleet Foxes). Indeed, I can't even recall the last work in any medium that's knocked me out like this; since I barely see movies or read books anymore, I have little to say there, but obviously I see plenty of theater, and the last plays I felt could be called masterpieces were probably August: Osage County and Circle Mirror Transformation. Obviously, on the small screen The Wire is an inarguable gold standard, though its greatness is attenuated by some thin narrative strands in ways that make it hard for me to consider it—or any great series, even Buffy the Vampire Slayer—a masterpiece in toto.

I have no such misgivings about Swing Lo Magellan, not a note of which is out of place. I would love to take apart several songs and demonstrate its world-shaking significance, and perhaps I will in future blog posts. For now I simply want to leave you with three choice tunes that I hope give an indication what I'm so excited about.

1. "Gun Has No Trigger" is the closest the record may have to a pop single, mainly because it's got an uninterrupted 4/4 drum track and a standard pop structure; that it's catchy as hell is another bonus (although one step Longstreth mostly hasn't made as a songwriter, for all his growth as a melodist, is to deliver great, full choruses; instead, as before, he largely tends to write long, verse-like structures that climax with a "chorus" that's simply the title line repeated). I would just point out a few things that send me over the moon about the song, apart from the way its ominous minor key gives way to a soaring major, and then to the surging one-line chorus.

First, there's the way Longstreth fills the first two phrases of the verse differently each time, not randomly or sloppily but in a way that makes each version haunt the other with unsung notes and dials up the song's insinuating, eerie tone. The first time he sings (at :21), "If you had looked, you might have just seen them/Stretched in the background," and then there's just a lacuna of unfilled-in beats. Next time he fills them in (at 1:21), "If you had looked, you'd be no one's coward/Distance, justice, power," and those two extra syllables of "power" have, well, a lot of power, because there were no notes in that space before. Finally, third time around, amping up a conversational, even confrontational tone (at 2:20): "If you had looked, you might reconsider/Or just maybe you already have." Chills.

That's worth listening for, as is the tiny but significant two-note slip Longstreth includes twice in every verse, in which for a passing moment he changes the chord from major to minor; it happens on "background" at :33, "colors" at :53, on "justice" at 1:32, "master" at 1:52...You'll get the idea. These tiny details shouldn't matter on first listen, and they certainly won't mean anything if you don't find this song as immediately compelling as I did, but they are there and they are very satisfying:

2. Then there's the title tune, which is just heartbreakingly beautiful and which seems to owe a lot, both in writing and arrangement, to Dylan's not-quite-fully-electric sound on "Bringing It All Back Home." It's there in the skittering drums, the bright alternating chords on guitar, in Longstreth's relaxedly leaping vocal; there are even ghosts of Dylan melodies here (just listen to the words "to the naked eye" and tell me you don't hear a faint jingle-jangle following you).

3. God, there are so many more songs worth mentioning: Amber Coffman's breakout vocal solo on "The Socialites," which is 20 times the faux R&B single that "Stillness" was; the unspeakably gorgeous, Kid A-meets-Graceland ode "See What She Seeing"; the Elvis-at-Sun-Records-reverb beauty of the album's perfect closer, "Irresponsible Tune"; the lovely dance between chiming, spraying guitar and angelic vocals on "Just From Chevron"; the cathartic whipsaw turns of the opening track, "Offspring Are Blank"; the sprawling, free-timed "Maybe That Was It"; the disarmingly, earnestly goofy "Dance for You"; the openhearted sweetness of "Impregnable Question."

But I'll leave you with "About To Die," which may be most typical song on an album that manages to be both stylistically diverse and unified in sound. This is the sound of Swing Lo Magellan in a bright, glittering nutshell: a melody line with a sneaky but catching shifting meter, in counterpoint with bright, jewel-like guitar chords, while Brian McOmber's percussion clatters and chatters ahead to the ecstatic chorus, where Longstreth's stretchy, soulful melisma is met with the celestial, limber harmonies of Amber Coffman and Haley Dekle. There's even a short surf over some low strings that evokes "Village Ghettoland" (at 2:27).

In short, it's the "Fixing a Hole" of Swing Lo Magellan, which, as you may be unsurprised to learn, I'm quite ready to include my personal pantheon with Sgt. Pepper's (actually, can I change that to Rubber Soul?), Imperial Bedroom, and John Wesley Harding (whose cover, by the way, I kind of think Swing Lo's may be obliquely riffing on). I'm meeting this masterpiece head on.

(crossposted at Train My Ear)

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