(New Album Review) Swans- To Be Kind

Those who listen closely to the new Swans album To Be Kind will not only be fascinated by its subtle lyrical thematic departure from the past, but will come away impressed by what is perhaps one of the best albums of their career. The album stretches itself just past the two hour mark, but it doesn’t lag for a second, unlike The Seer.

While the apocalyptic fury of Swans has not lessened over the years, since Children of God, Swans albums have evolved into the monolithic, visionary experiences that audiences expect them to be now. And as Michael Gira has advanced in age, he has indeed softened a little. In the past, Swans focused more on transgressive themes of society versus individuals, or individuals vying for power either in the context of society or in relationships with other individuals. Over time, the subject matter of Swans albums have become more occupied with more intangible metaphysical questions not meant to be answered in earnest.

These grandiose themes are that which keeps most of us returning to Swans. Norman Westberg and Christopher Hahn’s thrilling sonic punishment is probably just there to remind us that this is rock and roll, and perhaps to put us in the right frame of mind to take in the sublime. What’s really interesting in looking over these new Swans records is ruminating over Gira’s cryptic refrains about human nature, the Absolute, and knowledge.

A particularly haunting track is Gira’s tribute to Howlin’ Wolf “Just A Little Boy (for Chester Burnett)”. Indeed, Gira impressively captures Burnett’s raspy holler on the refrain “I’m just a little boy!” But then he takes us down a different path with the lines, “I’m not human! I need love!” Gira makes the unknowable and unquenchable source of human passion the subject of this song– his own passion and Burnett’s even more considerable passion  point the way to the engine inside so many of us.

I should not lie and say that To Be Kind represents the culmination of the Swans history, as the temptation is strong to label nearly all of this project’s absolutely overwhelming albums as these sorts of “culminations”. That assessment is what quite a few people I’ve spoken to or read seemed to give to The Seer, honestly. However, To Be Kind could certainly represent the finalization of the thematic shift that has been going on in Gira’s music for several decades. The Swans of the past (if we don’t count The Burning World, which I like, by the way) was often like a clenched fist– Swans at present has become a hand being cautiously extended in good faith.

“There are millions of stars in your eyes”… and with a line like that, something about this long, unsettling journey we’ve taken with Swans seems to arrive at something like a resolution. Even when we encounter Gira’s lyrical obsession with “As above, so below” on this album (“Love is blood! Blood is life!”), we rest assured that his relationship with these statements is not the same as before– they are simply statements about “what is” that come from a place of “descriptive” detachment. In fact, the most aggressive song on the album, “Oxygen” seems to be confidently expressing defiance at the ghosts that were so often the topics of Gira’s earlier work.

The story of Swans has turned deeper and deeper inward, and now the malaise has been diffused. Perhaps the end of the world is coming, perhaps the essential condition of this world is chaos, but all that is separate from what we know we can control. “I will let it go” Gira intones on “Kirsten Supine”. It’s been a hell of a trip, and though I obviously don’t know if it’ll go any further, I’ll just say I’d be perfectly content if it ended here.

For all of my Portland readers, I hope you’re as excited as I am to see Swans at the Roseland Theater on September 6th. Buy your tickets as soon as possible, as the show is almost certain to sell out very soon. Here’s hoping I see you there, it’s sure to be a good one!

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