Album Review: Swans—”To Be Kind”

By James Li

New York’s “no wave” scene was full of anomalies, but Swans were an anomaly among anomalies. The no wave movement, though short-lived (it lasted between 1978 and 1982) and geographically confined to New York’s Lower East Side, was the cutting edge of punk, from sleazy jazz (James Chance, The Lounge Lizards) to gnarled noise rock (DNA, Mars). Swans were no exception, gaining infamy in the early 80s for their industrial dirges, intense even by today’s standards. Equally infamous were frontman Michael Gira’s grim lyrics, which explored taboo topics such as rape (“Someone less privileged than you should use you / someone weaker than you should rape you”), suicide (“Dear God in heaven / I feel for you / I’ll hang for you”), police brutality (“Nobody beats their heads in like a cop with a club”), and masochism (“I’m a coward / stick your knife in me”). Early Swans concerts were also dangerous events: according to rumours, Gira often got physically confrontational with the crowd, and some audience members fell ill from the sheer volume.

While Swans’ reputation for intensity is well-deserved, it is unfair to leave it at that. Swans constantly developed their sonic palette, especially after the enigmatic Jarboe joined and shared lead vocal duties with Gira. On 1987’s Children of God, Swans softened their sound with acoustic instrumentation while maintaining their disturbing edge. Gira began to develop his signature vocal style, somewhere between a bluesman’s drawl and a preacher’s proclamation (Gira cites Howlin’ Wolf and Jerry Falwell as influences on his singing) and Jarboe’s haunting vocals added an air of dark romanticism. With each album, Swans added more texture and ambience. Swans disbanded in 1997 after releasing Soundtracks for the Blind, a genre-bending double album that brought field recordings, musique concrète, and post-rock crescendos into its fold. Gira went on to form Angels of Light, a folk band with a more understated approach. But Gira reunited Swans in 2010 in a rare band reunion more akin to an artistic rebirth rather than a cynical cash-grab.

The album art of To Be Kind

The album art of To Be Kind

This history lesson may seem extraneous, but Swans’ music has been constantly evolving for three decades and To Be Kind, a two-hour triple album, is the culmination of the disparate musical styles Swans have explored over the years. The apocalyptic sprawl of 2010’s My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky, Swans’ first album since their fourteen year hiatus, was a taste of what was to come; however, the reunion hit its stride with 2012’s The Seer, Swans’ most ambitious and critically acclaimed work to date. To Be Kind is not a rehash of The Seer, but rather The Seer’s artistic equal.

I feel that Gira named his band after Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling,” because, while the band still employs the same ugly noise they have since day one, they have been pitting that ugliness against beauty on their latest albums. Light is one of the most prominent motifs on The Seer, such as on “The Seer Returns” (“Your life pours into my mouth / my light pours out of my mouth”), “Song for a Warrior” (“There is a growing golden light / flowered and folding behind the mirror of your eyes”), and “A Piece of the Sky” (“In the blood of the swans / as the sun fucks the dawn”), and the music is accordingly ecstatic.

Love is the recurring theme on To Be Kind, but it’s never simple or sentimental. Over the jerking groove of “A Little God in My Hands,” Gira proclaims, “Oh universe, you stink of love!” And surely enough, To Be Kind is doused in the stench of love. On “Just a Little Boy (for Chester Burnett),” named in tribute to Howlin’ Wolf, Gira takes on the voice of an unborn child, begging to be loved. The hymnal “She Loves Us!” is a head-on collision between religious and sexual rapture, finding itself somewhere between the urge for pleasure and the urge to die.

To Be Kind also has more feminine energy than My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky or The Seer, but do not for a second conflate femininity for docility or weakness. Gira brings in a host of female guest vocalists to add texture and intensity to his songs. On the dark cabaret of “Some Things We Do,” Gira and Little Annie sing a paean to human nature (“We touch / we teach / we fuck / we love / we forget / we regret / we love, we love, we love, we love”). St. Vincent’s Annie Clark also provides multi-tracked backing vocals. True to the cult leader persona she adopts on her latest album, Clark is a choir of one. She is an excellent foil to Gira (though notably not as excellent as Jarboe, who is absent on this album), whether she’s angelically reverent on “Kirsten Supine” or chanting invocations on “Bring the Sun.”

Swans have also made huge strides musically, and To Be Kind may be their most progressive album yet. The shortest track on this album clocks in at five minutes, while the longest is over thirty-four minutes long. Nearly all of the musical styles Swans have explored in the past are represented on this album. “Oxygen” recalls the agonizing churn of Swans’ earliest days, constructing a scrap pile of jagged guitar and roaring horns over a jerking bass line. The album’s title track is closer to Gira’s output in The Angels of Light, lying on the intersection between folk and drone. The album’s centerpiece, the thirty-four minute suite “Bring the Sun / Toussaint L’Ouverture” is a jam on a scale that rivals anything Pink Floyd or King Crimson have done –Thor Harris’ drumming is essential to the build up to the infernal climax of “Bring the Sun,” and Christopher Hahn’s lap steel imparts a Western flavour to “Toussaint L’Ouverture” (fittingly, the album was recorded in a ranch in El Paso, Texas). “Toussaint L’Ouverture” is a portrait of the titular 18th century Haitian slave liberator, and samples the rasp of a hacksaw against wood and the whinny of a war horse before Gira starts one of his best vocal performances on the album, screaming “Liberté! Égalité! Fraternité!” with the bloodthirsty fervour of a Jacobin.

It’s stupefying to imagine that a band could create one of their most beautiful and intense albums three decades into their career. Other than Swans’ past material, there are few musical peers to Swans, although the sun-bleached drone of Earth or the transcendental bombast of Godspeed You! Black Emperor come close. To Be Kind’s scale and ambition led me to think of art outside the musical world – perhaps the beautiful apocalypse of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, the harrowing moral landscape of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, the sheer physicality of a Richard Serra sculpture, or the vivid chaos of a Hieronymus Bosch triptych. At any rate, Swans succeed at creating Art with a capital A on this album, and will probably continue to do so until the Rapture or the heat death of the universe. And if the sounds on To Be Kind are any indication, Swans will provide the soundtrack when that day comes. (Young God)

Listen to: “Oxygen

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