This Is (Not) a Love Song
I love that object, but even more I hate it; because I love it, and in order not to lose it, I embed it in myself; but because I hate it, the other within myself is a bad self, I am bad, I am non-existent, I shall kill myself
The Angels of Light’s Michael Gira is perhaps still best known as frontman of Swans, the avant-garde New York band responsible for some of the most extreme and confrontational noise-terror of the early ‘80s.
At their most uncompromising, Swans weren’t a band whose records you enjoyed in the privacy of your own home, unless you lived in bedlam or a torture chamber. Swans had to be witnessed live, in all their disturbing, distressing glory. Only in that context, with the volume loud enough to break the human spirit, did it all make sense. This was a band seeking some kind of perverse salvation or purification by plunging itself and its audience into the depths of total sonic and lyrical abjection.
With titles like “A Hanging”, “Butcher”, and “Raping a Slave”, Swans’ tracks were not songs—or music for that matter—but ritualistic, slow-motion aural assaults over which Michael Gira shouted/chanted about power, sex, violence, degradation and the like.
Nevertheless, Swans underwent a considerable makeover in the second half of the ‘80s, abandoning their ponderous, thundering wall-of-noise approach and their apparent desire to beat audiences into submission. Instead, the band began working with more conventional song structures that incorporated melody and even acoustic instrumentation. In 1988, they covered Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and, the following year, on their major label debut-cum-swan song, The Burning World, they even recorded a version of Steve Winwood/Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home”. This was indeed a far cry from earlier fare such as “Mother, My Body Disgusts Me”.
Since finally laying Swans to rest in 1997, Michael Gira has kept himself busy running his Young God label, writing prose, producing other artists, and recording solo albums and collaborative projects with the Body Lovers, the Body Haters, and the Angels of Light.
How I Loved You is the Angels of Light’s follow up to 1999’s New Mother. The album finds Gira exploring sonic territory similar to that of its predecessor and again utilizing a wide range of largely acoustic instrumentation and enlisting the aid of several familiar contributors (for instance, Lawrence Mullins, Christoph Hahn, and Thor Harris).
While the expansive, folk-inflected arrangements of How I Loved You might seem light years from Swans at their almost unlistenable best, there is a sense of continuity here. Gira translates key aspects of his early Swans aesthetic to an acoustic context, setting his characteristically gloomy lyrical search for transcendence amid ponderous, repetitious compositions.
As the title suggests, the focus of Gira’s meditations here is love, but of course, that also entails love’s myriad intersections with hate, violence, humiliation, suffering, loss, existential angst, and eternal dichotomies such as beauty and ugliness, good and evil.
These brooding songs often take jarring, disturbing lyrical turns as Gira—eternally locked between fascination and repulsion—works through the ambivalence of his subject matter. “I hate you for your love”, he intones in “My Suicide”, and that pretty much encapsulates the fraught ground that he’s constantly re-treading here. (The overriding theme of ambivalent love is appropriately grounded within the familial context: the front and back covers of the CD feature striking photographs of Gira’s own mother and father.)
Gira’s work bears some comparison with that of Nick Cave. Both fronted important post-punk bands that had enormous impact on the trajectory of “rock” music and both have always crafted their songs from morbid thematic material. Cave, however, succeeds where Gira on occasion flounders. The Australian dresses up his dark fascinations and his angst in campy—and often absurdly exaggerated—narratives. In his weakest moments, by contrast, Gira does little with his lyrics, singing/speaking what sound like excerpts from the kind of dense, poetic, theory-ridden novel that might appear on a reading list for Ph.D. comprehensive exams in Comparative Literature.
While it would be unreasonable to demand humour from an artist, it’s not unreasonable to criticize Gira for taking himself too seriously, particularly when his material doesn’t warrant such gravitas. Gira’s lyrical world is not a particularly happy one, but that’s not inherently problematic. The problem is that he occasionally seems to lack the creativity to make it compelling to listeners, especially when tracks go on for nearly 12 minutes—as is the case with “New City in the Future” and “Two Women”. And it’s sometimes hard not to focus on the lyrics, when the music doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Were there something in the lyrical or musical narrative of such tracks to justify their length, then it would be valid. Unfortunately, there isn’t.
The stronger numbers on How I Loved You are those that don’t overstay their welcome, or which at least make their duration acceptable with the incorporation of different instrumentation or some variation within the arrangement. Piano and accordion, as well as Christoph Hahn’s lap steel and additional vocals from Bliss Blood, make “Untitled Love Song” one of the album’s brighter moments (well, everything’s relative) and “My Suicide” is given a quirky fairground feel by its ukulele.
Some of the mid-length tracks avoid the trap of monotony and manage to be utterly compelling. The six-minute, Morricone-influenced “My True Body” ebbs and flows with shifting washes of intensity and then goes galloping off into the sunset of some imaginary western. By way of compensation perhaps, the eight-minute “New York City Girls” achieves a distinctly eastern feel, adorned with all manner of percussion and a subtle faux-oriental melody.
Leonard Cohen once recorded a rather dark album called Songs of Love and Hate. The Angels of Light’s How I Loved You makes that record sound like a children’s birthday party. While on some of the overly long tracks Gira’s vision becomes just a little overbearing, for the most part, the album sits well with the rest of his oeuvre.