To listen to Swing Lo Magellan is to hear David Longstreth holding something back.
Released on July 10 on Domino Records, Magellan is the seventh full-length album Longstreth has recorded as the Dirty Projectors, and the third since 2007's Rise Above, an idiosyncratic interpretation of a Black Flag record that established Longstreth's band as the most carnivorous in indie rock. The glittering Bitte Orca followed, and ever since, it's been all up, and fast, for Longstreth: props from the highest reaches of hip-hop, feted collaborations with David Byrne and Bjork, sold-out live shows featuring virtuosic displays of instrumental and vocal proficiency.
Magellan, on the other hand, is an exercise in restraint. In interviews, Longstreth has said the recordings are meant to let the composition, and not the skill, shine bright. (He's even compared the songs to smooth rocks.) But Longstreth's not one to underplay his work, so he's fleshed out his songs by directing Hi Custodian, a twenty-minute long film set to the music of Magellan, inspired in no small part by Kanye West's Runaway.
Filmed on location in the greater Southland for ten days in late April — in relative secrecy while the rest of the music industry was tuned in to Coachella — Hi Custodian will be released exclusively on Pitchfork.tv in September. From the looks of the trailer, Hi Custodian might be like staring into the ocean from a coastline cliff: epic, cosmic yet totally personal.
“Making a movie really frees up the way you think,” Longstreth says over the phone from Denver.
Longstreth and the Dirty Projectors team are based in New York, and initially planned promote Swing Lo Magellan by shooting music videos in the gentle hills of the Hudson Valley. But financing a short movie turned out to be cheaper, and the environmental diversity of Southern California suited Longstreth's long-simmering concern that in contemporary America, unprotected natural space of any kind could be sucked into the “national grid of uniformly commercialized zones.”
In Hi Custodian, that includes the creeks of the Angelus National Forest, the sandy beaches of Point Mugu, a ranch in Sunland and the desert in Anza-Borrego, and most pointedly, the residential sprawl in the Antelope Valley. In one scene, Longstreth, playing a peripatetic troubadour not unlike a young Woody Guthrie, strums his guitar on the empty streets of Lancaster, an arid desert landscape long rolled over by exurban tract housing.
This movie isn't like Yellow Submarine, Purple Rain or True Stories. It's not a chronological narrative with characters acting out song lyrics. (Longstreth plays a yokai, or a Japanese shape-shifting ghost, who appears to assume the characteristics of an undertaker, trashman, and rag-wrapped zombie. His girlfriend and bandmate Amber Coffman plays a character he describes as a “searcher.”)
Instead, Longstreth has said it's more like Runaway, Kanye West's hourlong visual counterpoint to his last album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. In West's movie, songs from his album were subtly remixed and broken down, with the central melody of the title track reprised throughout. In that way, watching Runaway was like dancing all the way through a twelve-inch disco remix, or listening to the dub plate of “I'm Still in Love With You,” and realizing that the dreamlike, associative characteristics of a pop song could be a creative world unto their own.
“The imagery bleeds into a rough storyline,” Longstreth says. “I don't want to give too much away, though this isn't a John Grisham style of plot, nothing that would make you say, 'Wow, that was a satisfying narrative.'” He laughs. “Mostly, I just want the images to blow your mind.”
Longstreth accedes that some of the images are quite literal. Lead single and Hi Custodian centerpiece “About to Die,” for example, soundtracks a painterly scene where he lays contrapposto in a sickbed. And “Offspring are Blank,” Swing Lo Magellan's stomping opening track, a song lyrically concerned with the dangers of overpopulation, plays as Longstreth, dressed in a bright yellow haz-mat suit bought on eBay, trudges through the Puente Hills Landfill in southeastern Los Angeles County, the largest landfill in the country.
“It's terrifying there,” recalls Longstreth. “We shot that scene on the last day of filming, just this hazy, shitty morning, 6 a.m. in late April. I'm sure Municipal Waste does a great job taking care of all the waste, but there's still bales of crushed plastic stacked stories high, and this huge mountain of trash with bulldozers constantly rearranging the topography.”
The Dirty Projectors play The Wiltern this Saturday, July 28 with Wye Oak.