Still Life with Angels
Subtlty. It’s not really a word one would associate with Michael Gira. After all, his former band Swans created loud and angry albums that pushed the limits of not only their fans, but of the band members as well. Gira was used to taking it on the chin in the press for his music, his attitude, and his actions. But that’s how he wanted to create his work. Hearing the sounds of Swans, one begins to wonder if Gira managed to exorcise all his demons.
One may wonder that even more when listening to Gira and his new group Angels of Light on their second album, How I Loved You. Michael composed the songs over a couple years, and “as it turns out, they’re all love songs, in one form or another”, says Gira. However, one really shouldn’t be surprised. It’s not like this is a Wayne Newton album. You can’t really come to “expect” anything obvious from Gira.
Playing with Michael on the album are such notables as Siobhan Duffy on background vocals, Kid Congo Powers on electric guitar, Bliss Blood working over the saw and ukelele, Larry Mullins on a number of instruments, including Farfisa, and Thor Harris on dulcimer to name but a few. Gira has been currently touring in support of the album and has also been buys concocting new songs, playing them to the audiences and deciding how to record them later.
Having been influenced from everything from Nico to old relationships, Gira has constructed an album of bittersweet pleasures. And there is still nothing subtle about his sound. Just because many of the instruments on the songs are acoustic doesn’t mean Michael can’t push the emotions with them. In fact, he builds consistently dense yet melodic soundscapes time and time again. The opening track “Evangeline” is a perfect example, starting out quiet and plaintive at the beginning, then slowly building up the melody, tension, and volume throughout the middle before breaking down again into almost a sigh for the conclusion. It takes nearly nine minutes, but it’s beautiful. It needs the time to bloom.
Other tracks take similar routes. The epic masterpiece of the disc, “New City in the Future”, lasts nearly 12 minutes. But again, the songs ebbs and flows, shifting between quiet moments, and almost harsh, raging swells as Gira cuts loose. “Why?!” pleads Michael at the songs conclusion, over and over, as the instruments clamor in the background, sounding as if they may break at any moment. The closing “Two Women” is just as long, but focuses more on the heavenly, the angelic, the beautiful. Not to say that Gira’s soul shattering exercises are not beautiful, either. To listen to them is to cleanse yourself as well when Michael strips himself bare, forcing his emotions through the microphones.
Indeed, it’s a lush beauty that saturates many of the songs here, from the chiming “Song for Nico” to the wonderful “New York Girls”. How I Loved You strikes the perfect balance between the dark and the light. As songs like “My True Body” roar with a fixated rage, there are others like “Untitled Love Song” that keep the manic energy under control. It’s moving and fascinating to hear such contrasts come and go throughout the album.
Have things changed for Michael Gira since leaving Swans and forming Angels of Light? It’s hard to say. Musically, the old rage is still there. Yet in the new setting, it’s even more fascinating. After all, it’s not often that we get to hear acoustic instruments pushed to their limits like this. In a sense, it’s almost frightening. Yet it always remains captivating, nonetheless. For all intents and purposes, How I Loved You is a successful and unique collection of love songs. Harrowing, but passionate.