[12 May 2014]
The music of Swans following the band’s reconstitution in 2010 with the album My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky has been steeped in myth, legend, and lore. That album, which draws extensive influence from frontman Michael Gira’s years in Angels of Light, speaks of generations “drifting through the wind” and of mythopetic “thrones” that penitents kneel before. There are lots of stories sung on that record, but they almost always address the most atavistic of human experiences; watching Gira really get into the music in a live setting, it’s easy to think of him as a kind of shaman.
Additionally, Rope to the Sky also heavily invokes the language of religion, adding a healthy dose of immediacy to the group’s punishing exploration of rhythm and groove. The record feels like Gira is out to immortalize himself through music, a sentiment which also runs through 2012’s The Seer, which took the song template of Rope to the Sky and blew it up to its most epic proportions. This new iteration of Swans announced their intentions with a 50-minute album; with their intentions now clear, they’re taking up all the musical space they can. The Seer runs at two hours long; To Be Kind now follows suit. Swans had been disbanded for 14 years before Rope to the Sky kicked off a new epoch for the group, but the urgency of their music isn’t about making up for lost time. Gira has spoken extensively about his hatred for nostalgia. Rather, it’s about living purely in the moment, of connecting the everlasting with the here-and-now.
To Be Kind follows in the legacy of The Seer in making those connections, and at two hours it takes its time. Undoubtedly, those who found it hard to get all the way through the latter album aren’t going to find the former cozy and inviting; in many ways, it’s a more difficult recording. To Be Kind features fewer of the shorter, (relatively) digestible tracks; “Screenshot”, “A Little God in My Hands”, and “Oxygen” are all fairly attention intensive despite being less lengthy than the bulk of the album, where half of the songs run over ten minutes. The briefest piece here is the pizzicato-accented “Some Things We Do”, which, as the title implies, runs through a list of things that humans do: “We cut / We seek / We love”, amongst others. Yet even though that cut is basic on the comparative, it still carries with it the resounding weight of all that surrounds it.
The primordial quality of both the group’s songwriting and Gira’s lyrical matter remains constant, whether it be the longer, formless pieces or the shorter, song-oriented tracks. This isn’t the type of music that really allows for breathers: right after the lovely string arrangements of “Some Things We Do” fade out, in comes the plodding, militaristic bassline of “She Loves Us!” That’s the challenge of To Be Kind, and indeed all of Swans’ music as of late; even when it is catchy, as it often is, it calls for the listener’s entire focus. Sure, a behemoth like “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture” takes up more time than the eight minute “Screenshot”, but despite a 20 minute difference between the two, they both explore undulating, hypnotic rhythms that captivate in just the same way. This band knows how to make seven minutes feel like 30, and vice versa.
But there really is something about a song like “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture”, which as of 2014 is Swans at their most archetypal. Forged out of the lengthy touring sessions for The Seer, the song develops in a way similar to that album’s title track, with megalithic guitar strums cascading waves of sound over ritualistic chants and cries: “The sun, the sun, the sun!” in the first half, and “TOUSSAINT L’OUVERTURE!” in the second. (Meanwhile, some time later “Nathalie Neal” opens with what sound like actual tribal chants.) Though To Be Kind sags as it nears its conclusion, particularly after the infectious jolt of energy that is “Oxygen” halts its groovy bassline, it’s the basic trope of repetition and variation that keeps the momentum going. In its daunting length, “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture” encapsulates the vivacious Swans spirit in totality. The riffs bludgeon, the words echo and haunt; yet, somehow, at the end of it all, it’s easy to feel elated. Gira’s lyrics often invoke the process of being removed from everything, a sort of musical nirvana: “No need, no hate, no will, no speech”, he lists amidst the alternating movements of the instruments on “Screenshot”. If anything, though, one is more likely to feel full after plunging into this music.
The mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile once said that if music is good, it will get a person moving—not dancing, necessarily, but the power of the notes should be so such that remaining still is not an option. Despite there being plenty of contenders, no other band better captures the spirit of Thile’s observation better than Swans. While in a live setting movement is inevitable because of the sheer density of sound waves coming out of the group’s amplifiers, even in the limited range provided by headphones one will likely end up performing some tantric movement. Gira is usually given most of the attention in reviews and press related to Swans, but the true star of To Be Kind is Christopher Pravdica, who utterly shatters the long-standing rock stereotype of the passive, chilled-out bass player lurking in the shadows of the stage. If anything, he’s in the foreground of nearly every song here, especially the album’s most memorable cuts: “Screenshot” and “Oxygen” would be nothing without his stage-rumbling notes.
Most surprising of all is lead single “A Little God in My Hands”, where the bass and guitars form a funky, ‘70s style shuffle. To Be Kind is far from a one-person effort: guest spots from St. Vincent, Little Annie, and Al Spx spice up what is already an impressive roster. But if one were to take this music and boil it down to its most fundamental aspects, rhythm would be at the top of the list, and for that reason Pravdica is the record’s anchor. The bass on “She Loves Us!” hits with the weight of the best metal riffs.
“Weight” is a particularly good word to invoke in discussion about what Swans has become since Rope to the Sky. Even when the group is at its most accessible, such as songs like “Reeling the Liars In”, the subject matter is usually lofty in a way that transcends said accessibility (in that track’s case, the burning and face-peeling of liars). Heavy though the burden is, plenty of people have chosen to follow along. Swans have culled an impressive body of followers while indulging their newest sonic proclivities; To Be Kind was funded almost entirely through the sales of the fancy limited-edition release Not Here/Not Now. In an age where people have already begun to reject or at least push back against the MP3 as the dominant form of music distribution, the resurgence of Swans has served as a crystallizing instance of something important: People are still willing to give music their time and money. With albums like To Be Kind, it’s easy to see why.