If reunions are about looking back, about rehashing the past, then Michael Gira’s reformation of Swans is no reunion. It’s become clear during their incessant touring, and the band’s last album, 2010’s My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, that this isn’t the same Swans that clattered and snarled their way through the ’80s and into the mid-’90s. Swans is ever pushing forward, and they sound now like an expansive, rattling expansion of Michael Gira’s country-death-blues work in Angels of Light. Swans isn’t necessarily leaving the past behind, of course, but the band does feel like both synthesis and reinvention, taking sounds from Gira’s (and the other players’) musical past and building on that wide-open foundation.
In 2012, they have offered not one but two epic, double-album releases, that show just how much they are expanding and how much fruitful new ground they’ve broken. The first, We Rose From Your Bed With the Sun in Our Head, documents the band’s touring in 2010 and 2011, and it serves as a sort of hinge in Swans’ history. It recaptures old tunes, but reshapes them to fit the new mold of the band, and moves forward into blistering and huge, nearly formless, material that would eventually end up on the band’s new record, The Seer (more on this in a moment).
We Rose From Your Bed may be a live album, but it’s much more investigative and surprising than most live offerings. Gira is, as always, the howling commanding presence at the front of the fray. But it’s that fray that carries these performances. The live set starts, smartly, with “No Words, No Thoughts”, a huge, repetition of sound that kicked off My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky. The song itself is a hinge of sorts in the band’s history, providing both a link to and a shift from the previous Swans incantation from 1996’s Soundtracks for the Blind. Here it eases us into the largely experimental world of the shows represented on this disc. Everything here is writ large, stretched beyond even their huge studio versions. What makes this album so satisfying, and utterly fascinating on repeat listens, is how it manages to cohere as a whole while still shocking with its shifts. New versions of older songs, like “Beautiful Child” or “Yr Property” sound perfectly — that is to say, oddly but beautifully — in step with newer stuff like the rollicking stomp of “Jim”. The new material here, that ended up on The Seer, gives us a chance to hear the band grow into these songs. As they feel out “The Seer (Intro)/I Crawled” over its 30 minute run time, you’ll likely find yourself as transfixed by its seemingly endless groan and roll as the players themselves are. It’s a song, like the 17-minute “The Apostate”, that thumps out a slow, grinding pulse for an impossibly long time before ever quite forming into a song.
And yet, in all its sometimes self-indulgent experiments and space, in all its overly patient exploration, We Rose From Your Bed still keeps your attention. It should seem arch — and the bellowing of older tunes like “Sex God Sex” is exciting but still doesn’t quite fit — but it never does. The band feels like they are honestly trying to find new ground, trying to connect to the crowd through shared experience. They don’t know where they’re going sometimes here, and you — and the crowds here — are along for that ride. If it feels aimless, that’s because it is. Or rather, because the destination isn’t laid out for you yet. This live set proves there’s plenty of invention to be found in playing the same songs over and over again, and that you don’t always need a map to find where you’re going.
If the live album revels in its grinding spectacle, The Seer attempts a more polished but no less open grandiosity. Gira claims the album “took 30 years to make” and that it is “the culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I’ve ever made.” In its wandering, excellent way, The Seer does indeed reshape that past, although it doesn’t deal as deeply in it as the live record. Instead The Seer pushes forward in all directions: into the deathly choir of “Lunacy”, into the tense angles of “Mother of the World”, into the voice-only balladry of “The Wolf”, and so on. These represent the more contained moments on the record, the songs that unfold as you imagine songs should. They are still large in their effect, like the striking beauty of the Karen O-sung “Song For a Warrior”, but their structures won’t shock or overpower you. Other songs here, though, show that the length of those live takes was no fluke.
The title track clocks in at 32 minutes — and the next six-minute song is called “The Seer Returns” — and it will transfix you. Yes it is, by some definition steeped in pop expectations, too long. So is “A Piece of the Sky” at 19 minutes, and “The Apostate”, blown up here to 23 minutes. But “too long” is part of the point here. The Seer is the most daring rock record this year — or in several years — because it makes anyone else’s forays into expansion seem diminutive. That’s not to say it is good because it is long — like the live album, it clocks in at two hours — because it is a lot to listen too, a set of songs and sounds that can feel overwhelming.
But The Seer is meant to overwhelm. Somewhere in its utter hugeness, it breaks down barriers between listener and music, between sound and reaction to that sound. This kind of meshing, of both sense and perspective, is deeply embedded in the album. While that title, The Seer, may feel overly religious, it may have more to do with simply the person doing the seeing, the one from which perspective derives. In “The Seer”, Gira’s voice proclaims “I see it all” over and over again. And, of course, he doesn’t, but he seeks to, as does this music. It searches for borders that aren’t there. It’s not looking to be entirely free, it’s searching for its limits. So when we get to “The Seer Returns” and there’s an exchange (“Your life pours into my mouth / My light pours out of my mouth / My life pours into your mouth”) we see that this perspective can’t be isolated. That some exchange — of spirit, of idea, of sound — must happen to find what the Seer here is looking for. It’s a call, in its impressionistic way, to community, in particular through music. Note the shift in senses, from “see[ing] it all” to things pouring into and out of “my mouth” and “your mouth”. It’s intimacy, communication, and even faint spirituality.
The Seer — and its perhaps unintentional companion We Rose From Your Bed With the Sun In Our Head — is a brave record, one that at times threatens to lose its hold on you, but in the end one that manages to be self indulgent without being self serving. The seer, in the end, appears to be you, and what you find in these records will tell you something of what it’s about, what Swans is about, what Michael Gira is about. You may not put words to what you find, but you’ll feel it because you’ll hear it. Because sometimes they’re the same thing.