Michael Gira's legendary Swans return from over a decade of silence to create a heart-stopping album of sin, death, hope, and reclamation.
At one point on My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, legendary Swans frontman Michael Gira proclaims, “I am free from the choking hold/that began in Eden prison”. On another track, shortly thereafter, he croons in his somber baritone, “Please open my mind and take what’s left”. When thinking about the lyrics of most songwriters, debates about the nature of free will in a supposedly fallen universe don’t normally cross one's mind. Not so when dealing with Gira -- the man’s into some heavy stuff, to put it, well, lightly. Even more intriguingly, he doesn’t just bring these issues up in his liner notes, offering pat judgments about good and evil. No, Gira’s not one to oversimplify, not one to make things immediately accessible or familiar. If he did that on an album, it wouldn’t be a Swans album, at all.
If those lyrics above suggest a writer both celebrating and bemoaning his ability to completely control his choices in life, to see his own consciousness as the thing from which all of his decisions and mistakes spring forth, that might explain some of Gira’s recent moves in his decades-long musical career. He’s “re-activated” Swans, dormant since 1997, and why not? It’s his world. Some of his more cynical acolytes may have greeted the news with skepticism, fearing a weak comeback album or half-baked reunion tour. However, Gira’s been doing fine without the band. His Angels of Light project has been putting out compelling material ever since Swans called it quits. So, why reboot Swans if not for some compelling reason of his own? Whatever the case, we finally have My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky to judge, and -- whatever baggage it might carry -- what a gift it turns out to be.
My Father opens with what sounds like church bells, tolling in a darkly singsong melody. Gira soon sweeps all of that away, his band announcing themselves in a swell of noise, wailings eerily like bomber jets or air raid sirens darting in and out above the mix. Church is out, it seems? After a few minutes, the track, “No Words/No Thoughts”, takes real shape. Gira’s voice leads the way above militaristic percussion and heaving guitars. The 21st century Gira’s still interested in writing songs, no longer content with being a noisemaker, an idea later Swans releases made clear to an often divided fan base. The song sets the tone for the record perfectly: dark, almost to the point of pitch, yes, but also complex and shifting, something like a gallon of oil rushing around your feet, impossible to collect in one handful.
While “No Words/No Thoughts” introduces the emotional tenor of My Father, it doesn’t contain the entirety of its musical palate. The next track, “Reeling the Liars In”, brings the folk elements of Angels of Light into Swans territory. The song could be rightfully called some bastard offshoot of country western music, but it would be from the West of Cormac McCarthy or another dystopian prophet, all grit-covered wasteland and bits of flesh clinging to sun-bleached skeletons. Over a gently strummed acoustic guitar, Gira matter-of-factly sings, “We are reeling the liars in/we are removing their face/collecting their skin/we are reeling the liars in”. The speaker of the song paints himself as a saint, here to “sing as you eat their tongues” after leading these liars to his band of righteous followers. “Here is my hand”, he proffers, “now drive the nail in/Here is my tongue/now cut off my sin”. So, he’s part of the problem, too, another liar to be burnt away. Again, this question seems to be the dilemma of the record: if God has been finally chased away, what do we do about sin, now, by ourselves?
“Jim”, a jaw-dropping, hallucinatory vision dressing up as a song, offers some potential choices: “It’s time/to lose/the binds/to lose our minds/time to exhale/to drink the green sea/to drift upon/the scarlet breeze… it’s time/to begin”. Beautiful imagery, but delivered in Gira’s throaty, clipped bellow, the words become purely sinister, images of men who made their own gods, with all crushing and violent power that comes with that transformation. “Ride your/mechanical beast/to Heaven”, Gira intones over the band’s impossibly insistent, hypnotizing drone. This is explosive songwriting, both burdensome in its weight and liberating in its fevered call-to-arms.
The most impressive thing about My Father’s seething, swaggering intensity is that it keeps it up. “My Birth” groans forward on a seasick rhythm, its wall-of-sound pummeling away as Gira hears “the howl of the beast/I feel his breath on my face/I feel the edge of his teeth…” In a lesser songwriter, these lyrics would become meaningless James Hetfield-style tropes, but Gira’s presence proves indomitable in the earnestness and intelligence of its doomsaying. “You Fucking People Make Me Sick” features Devendra Banhart in his first un-cringe-worthy appearance on a record since -- actually, ever -- cooing along with Gira’s 3 ½ year-old daughter, Saoirse, to skin-crawling effect. “Little Mouth” closes the record on a note of starkly beautiful (and even more so by virtue of its contrast to the searing trip offered by the rest of the album before it) and qualified hope, with Gira asking, “And may I find/my way/to the reason to come home?/And may I find/my way/to the foot of your throne”. He’s searching for answers in the face of a terrifying abyss, and -- true to Gira’s form -- Swans again carries off the seemingly impossible task of making music for both the void and the soul.