Most of the musicians I’ve written about in this series are ones that were important to me when I was younger because of work they did themselves when they were young. I’ve written about records they did after turning 40 that either came close to or equaled the quality I heard in their earlier recordings. (Sun Ra, Thurston Moore, Emmylou Harris.) I’ve also written about artists who come to prominence after turning 40, (Amadou et Meriam,) or who I wasn’t aware of until after I turned 40, (Morton Feldman, Bill Dixon) or who I knew existed when I was young but didn’t listen to until the aughts. (One example is Youssou N’Dour, who I saw play a fantastic live concert in Chapel Hill last Tuesday. To a lesser extent this is also true of PJ Harvey, who I hadn’t heard more than a few songs by until Let England Shake came out in 2010.)
The Swans are unusual in this series because I heard them when I was young, in the 1980’s and 1990’s, but I wasn’t enamored of them. Since they returned in 2009, however, they’ve released three albums that I am quite enamored of. I can’t really think of anyone else I could say that about.
My main exposure to the Swans back then came in the form of tapes that Lou Barlow would make me around the time we were getting to know each other prior to forming the Folk Implosion. I used to think that the best version of a Swans song I had heard was the time Lou shouted the lyrics of “Cop” over an instrumental synthesizer version of “Strawberry Fields Forever” during an on-air interview we did on WHRB. I started laughing so hard stuff started coming out of my nose. He really loved the Children of God album – I mean really loved it! I liked some of the songs he taped for me, like In My Garden and Real Love. I even wrote a song on Pure Night, my first solo album, that lifted a title from another song on Children of God, Blind Love. But I didn’t really “buy” the record, or the band. They reminded me of conceptual art that is rhetorically provocative and interesting but formally stiff and two dimensional.
No one could say that about My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, (2010,) The Seer, (2012,) or To Be Kind, (2014,) the three albums that the Swans have released since reforming. There’s a musical fluidity and attention to detail to the production that feels operatic or symphonic in it’s scope without coming off as pretentious. Instead, the expansive length of the songs and records seems to come out of a devotion to craftsmanship that seeps through every pore of the recordings. For example, check out the drum sound on the song Screen Shot that kicks off the new album To Be Kind. The metal wires are taken off the snare drum but the drum is still tight in the way you think a snare drum should be. There’s an undertone or overtone you can hear without the metallic snap that you rarely hear on a rock song. It sounds like a snare drum playing the sonic role a timpani would play in an orchestra. Or consider the piano, cello and vocal harmonies that usher in and out the generally assaulting tune Lunacy, from The Seer, which is probably the best of the trio of recent Swans albums:
An example of the growth that Michael Gira has pursued over decades of work as a singer is his solo acoustic version of Jim. It holds it’s own next to the full band version on My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky. The solo album as a whole shows that the staying power over the new material is down to more than just Gira having a hot new cast of musicians to work with:
But then again the vibes, mandolin (I think?) and the push of the drms ‘n gtrs on the electric version of Jim are dynamic in the true sense of the word: generating energy by moving back and forth between extremes of low and high decibel levels. Maybe someday the kind of songs the Swans are doing that veer from soft to quiet over the course of a 6-35 minute drone will become formulaic in the way that the Pixies “quiet verse to loud chorus” 3 minute pop punk songs became formulaic in the 1990’s. For now they sound remarkably fresh and supple, like a well poised muscle that can lift a lot of weight with ease.
There’s a theatrical quality to the ebb and flow of long songs like Mother of the World that makes me think of Nick Cave’s work with Bad Seeds in general, and the scene Wim Wenders included of them in his visually beautiful but somewhat sappy film Wings of Desire in particular.
Cave and Gira share a severe and dour brow kind of persona I myself don’t have that much in common with. When I was looking for someone to mix my album Spare Parts, John Darnielle sold me on the interpersonal skills of the engineer and producer Brandon Eggleston by saying, “Look, Brandon gets along great with Michael Gira, who has been known to make sound men cry on a regular basis. If he can tour with the Swans for a year and a half without problems, he can work well with anyone.”
For me the recent Swans records succeed at pulling off what the Bad Seeds were trying to do on those records with greater musical skill and less pretension. Partially it’s that the arrangements and musicianship just feel more powerful and fluid – especially when it comes to the drums. But it’s also that I never really liked the way Nick Cave sings about America in general and the South in particular. Maybe it’s due in part to the fact that he’s not from the US, which Michael Gira is. Cave’s schtick draws on the stock drama encoded into Faulkner-derived images of the South without really confronting the topic of racism and history that are the source of that dramatic tension, at least not to my admittedly limited knowledge of his work. My sister has leveled this criticism against Faulkner himself. She said that Faulkner seems to think heaviness and drama can be conveyed by simply noticing that women and people of color exist, as if that was a shock in itself. She also quoted Walter Ben Michaels as saying that Faulkner had “the imagination of a 14 year old boy.” Looking in from abroad, Cave’s Americana tunes felt even more like a Vampirish sucking of emotional blood from someone else’s historical body. By contrast, Michael Gira frequently comments explicitly on the social conditions that Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters had to overcome in order to create music that had a worldwide impact.
The new Swans record also features a half hour + song about Touissant L’Ouverture, the leader of the successful slave revolution in Haiti around the turn of the 18th-19th century. Following shortly after the American “Revolution,” (which historian Gerald Horne has called “The Counter-Revolution of 1776,” because of the role fears of the pending abolition of slavery in the British Empire played in motivating southern planters like Washington to Declare Independence), the Haitian revolution was a pyrrhic victory. The new Caribbean nation gained freedom and independence only to be unrelentingly punished for it ever since by France and the United States. As a result, it remains one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere. (See Unbroken Agony by Randall Robinson for an excellent overview of that story.)
When asked about the song Touissant L’Ouverture in interviews, Gira takes the rare step of recommending that people read more about the history of the Haitian revolution because even a half hour long song can’t really tell the full story. Gira’s aim seems rather to be to highlight the importance of the issue and encourage deeper awareness and investigation. (The classic history of the revolution is The Black Jacobins by the great C.L.R. James.)
I’ve been impressed with how thoughtful Gira can be about other issues since paying closer attention to his profile over the last few years. I first started to get interested in his recent work after seeing him interviewed in an underwhelming documentary called Kill Your Idols about the No Wave scene in New York and its later imitators or descendants. The film set up the totally unfair question of comparing the original No Wave movement bands to recent bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who are shredded or perhaps I should say vaporized in impressive fashion by Lydia Lunch in the film. The most interesting part of the film for me was hearing Gira talk about corporate capitalism as the source of a lot of the problems that the musicians discussed in the film were dealing with. I had read rave reviews of The Seer at that point, but had not yet listened to any of the records I’m talking about here today.
Sonic Youth were also featured in the film. I was particularly struck by how much more interesting the interview with Gira was, even compared to Lee Renaldo, who came off as a totally generous and big spirited guy in the movie. Gira seemed less limited to a music or art world frame of reference. He also steered clear of repeating the by now overhyped mythology of the genealogy of punk music in New York that Thurston Moore talks about in the movie, (CBGBs, the Ramones, Television, blah blah blah.) As a result, Gira struck me as both more intellectually and musically open minded – the opposite of a flag waver for “our team.” This surprised me. I loved Sonic Youth when I was in my 20s and considered it to be only fitting that they had more success than the Swans after coming out of the NYC noise rock scene at around the same time.
After listening to these last three Swans records, I now wonder if the Gira’s relative lack of success in the 90’s compared to Sonic Youth kept him hungry in a way that the Swans are now benefitting from. I loved Thurston Moore’s Demolished Thoughts and look forward to hearing his new solo album, but I don’t think it’s nearly as interesting as the last 3 Swans records. After digesting them, I went back and listened to all the early Swans records I could find on Spotify. I ended up really liking the ones about money. The monochromatic quality of songs like Money Is Flesh, and the plain iconography of the dollar signs on the cover of both the Greed and Holy Money LPs capture something much more fundamental for me about America than Faulkner or Nick Cave ever did.
I wish I’d known about those records back in ’92/3 when I was working on a thesis project about money that began an ongoing inquiry into how complex the psychological, cultural and yes, economic ramifications of the seemingly simple phenomenon of money really is in our society. I think I’m gonna go listen to those songs again while finishing The Bubble and Beyond by Michael Hudson, which is also highly recommended.