The second track of Swans new album To Be Kind is titled “Just a Little Boy (for Chester Burnett).” It’s a twelve-and-a-half minute drunken stumble of a song, supported only by a woozy drum and bass groove that is aggressively consistent—but never confident—in its ability to make it home. The song is peppered with little bursts of steel-guitar noise and lead singer/songwriter/creepiest-old-man-alive Michael Gira’s desperate shrieks. “I’m just a little boy!” he snarls into the void, “I need loooooooooove!” Following this plea, an otherworldly chorus of unseen onlookers mocks Gira with unforgiving, maniacal laughter—by far the most vulnerable and emotionally masochistic moment in Swans’ canon.
And that’s saying something considering just how large that canon is. From 1982 through the mid-nineties, Swans churned out a stretch of inimitable music that ranged from blistering, industrial grime to beautiful, yet always horrifying, acoustic folk and drone. That Gira has been able to write music so consistently good is a testament not only to his own ingenuity, but to how nuanced Swans’ aesthetic has become over their now twenty year lifespan.
Swans first emerged from New York’s no wave scene in the early eighties drenched in irradiated sludge and boasting a deep seated resentment for all forms of institutional power. Gira was initially involved with the L.A. punk scene during the late seventies, but when the hardcore punks started venting their hatred of The System by hitting their drums louder and faster (and creating a community of violent machismo which he grew to loathe), Gira decided that his new band would trudge through the desolate terrain of their music—jaded, bitter, and almost completely isolated from any other musical group of the time. Swans’ few touchstones were the industrially inclined Throbbing Gristle and the abrasive post-punk of John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd, but with a much leaner sonic palette.
Their first album Filth was truly unholy; sloppy, fat guitar and bass tones wobbled alongside a massive percussion section that didn’t keep time so much as try and shock the listener awake from the banalities of American corporate life. As the decade progressed, Swans incorporated not only new instrumentations including de-tuned pianos, acoustic guitars, synths and drum-machines, but a new member in the form of Jarboe, a fan who traveled to New York after hearing Filth and eventually became a significant contributor to Swans writing (not to mention becoming a long term romantic interest of Gira’s in the process). Swans sound and style continued to evolve without ever sacrificing their unique brand of unforgiving repetition and desolation through the end of the eighties and into the nineties. Then, in 1997, it all stopped. Over the course of fifteen years, Gira had become embittered from his time wrestling with labels and producers over creative control of his music and so he decided to pull the plug on Swans for (what everyone thought was) good. They released a final album, Soundtracks for the Blind (a two-hour, droning monolith, thought by many to be their greatest achievement) and toured one last time before dissolving.
But that didn’t mean Gira’s tortured howl-turned-sleazy-mumble wouldn’t be heard again; he is and was far too intransigent in his desire for aural ecstasy to have given up or drifted into mediocrity. Over the next decade, Gira busied himself with various side projects including noise experiments as Body Lovers/Body Haters and, most notably, his group Angels of Light, who specialized in bleakly beautiful acoustic folk (2001’s How I Loved You, a collection of horror-tinged love songs, is a personal favorite). Then in 2010, thirteen years after their last album, a reunited Swans dropped My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky into our unsuspecting laps. My Father… saw Swans playing with the vicious hopelessness that characterized pretty much all of their previous music—but this time around, Gira and company spun it with an unexpected humor. Tubular chimes, a didgeridoo, and the off key singing of Gira’s infant daughter are all featured throughout the album and the effect is somehow hilarious without sacrificing the immediacy of Gira’s anger. This album acted as a strange harbinger of the Swans renaissance to come. And if My Father… was the prophecy, 2012’s The Seer was the Apocalypse.
“Brutal,” “unforgiving” and “sickening” are all words that get tossed around a lot when talking about Swans. But The Seer adds “fast” to the mix. This music gathers all the pent-up resentment of Swans extensive body of work and expels it with unprecedented vitality. After the prologue of “Lunacy” in which Gira and a chorus of Bacchic singers invoke the muse of insanity, we break into the album proper, beginning with four straight minutes of monstrous panting from Gira in a lunging 6/8 meter. From there, the album breaks into an orgiastic sprint punctuated only by occasional moments of beauty like “Warrior Song” and “The Daughter Brings the Water.” But where previous Swans albums challenged listeners to give up and listen to something nicer, The Seer snarls at their heels and chases them along a dismal, two-hour pilgrimage ending in apostasy.
Thirty years after they had begun, Swans managed to create music that was exponentially more expansive and cathartic than when they had begun. And they weren’t even done yet.
To Be Kind, arrived in my mailbox back in late May. I had preordered it a few weeks before the release for the privilege of having lead singer/songwriter/creepiest-old-man-alive Michael Gira’s signature scrawled on the back. However, demand for the album was too much for Gira and his staff at Young God Records to handle so, much to my chagrin, my copy didn’t ship until two weeks after the release. By the time I received the manila package on my doorstep I was concerned I had built things up a bit too much. Despite shamelessly binging on the sickly funk of pre-release single “A Little God in my Hands,” I had purposefully limited my listening of the album on Spotify so I could experience it in full with the CD. But from the few half-listens of songs I indulged in, I could tell that this wasn’t going to be the brute-force attack of The Seer. Waiting for the album to arrive, I tried in vain to stave off dread at having paid legal tinder for two hours’ worth of potentially boring music.
Upon removing the album from the envelope, however, I was immediately taken aback by the CD’s packaging. I had seen images of the album art online before its release, but the physical object was something to behold: on a rough cardboard surface—colored an off-putting mustard yellow—sits a glossy, embossed image of the head of a weeping, blond baby. Five other images of infant heads are scattered throughout the double CD packaging, boasting assorted, exaggerated temperaments ranging from serene to grotesque (my personal favorite is the baby on the back cover wearing an expression of bored condescension).
These pictures, drawn by L.A. painter Bob Biggs, were chosen by Gira after recording for the record had already finished. However, they gel surprisingly well with To Be Kind thematically. In fact, using a crying infant as album art seems to be the only sensible choice for a record so obsessed with primordial forms of vulnerability, worship, and rebirth.
Where The Seer was apocalyptic, To Be Kind is oddly redemptive. Naturally Swans couldn’t have outdone themselves in the brutality they covered in their last album, so Gira made the decision to go up instead of down. That title isn’t ironic by the way. In fact, I don’t think there’s a moment of irony anywhere to be found. To Be Kind is a genuine exploration of the unfathomably complex (and terrifying) ways we attempt to enact kindness. That’s not to say this music is nice though. Far from it. It pounds away at the listener for two hours with characteristic vigor and filth. “A Little God in my Hands” could be the lead song on a Swans Greatest Hits compilation as it essentially functions as a manifesto of their aesthetic. “Oh universe!/Sing in reverse!” Gira wails, “Eye full of sun, hand full of mud/Oh universe: you stink of love!” On The Seer, Gira used the profane to evoke piety, but on this record he does the opposite to achieve essentially the same effect. His eyes are cast upward, locked on the sun regardless of the blinding light. However, his explicit adoration of light brings about just as much pain, filth, eroticism, and love as when he’s worshiping the void. This isn’t blasphemy for its own sake; instead, it’s intended to show the blurry lines between the sacred and the profane, both of which inspire zealous devotion. Gira shows that the profane and the sacred are essentially one and the same in that they achieve the same thing. In response to being asked if Swans’ reputation for dourness and musical drudgery was accurate he simply responded, “Fuck that shit. The goal is ecstasy.”
Joshua Palmer is the former associate editor of 1966, a “journal of creative nonfiction,” and a recent graduate of Trinity University where he studied music, English, and creative writing.