Following their "reconstitution", Swans have put out three albums since 2010. PopMatters examines the best material the innovative rock band has put out during that time.
Michael Gira was not making a mere semantic distinction when, following the announcements in 2010 that Swans would be coming out with a new album, he insisted that the group convened to make My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky would be a reconstitution, not a reunion. To those diehard fans of the innovative rock outfit that waited 14 years following 1996’s Soundtracks for the Blind, Gira’s words were—and still are—appropriately sage. While there are characteristics of what might be called “Swans 1.0” that remain in “Swans 2.0”—namely punishing walls of sound, expansive track lengths, and grim subject matter—the music Gira and his band of volume torturers have been making since Rope to the Sky is of a class all its own.
Following the concise 44 minute runtime of Rope to the Sky, Swans decided to go full-hog, churning out two slabs of rock and roll at its most brutalizing: 2012’s The Seer and the recently released To Be Kind. At two hours each, these records provide listeners with a lot to be entertained by—but, like anything, there’s a price. When I spoke with Gira about To Be Kind, he confessed: “It requires an active devotion.”
That devotion, however, is only going to be tested from here on out as Swans continue to evolve. Part of Gira’s philosophy for Swans 2.0, implied by the use of “reconstitution” rather than “reunion”, is a strong rejection of looking backward. Though old Swans cuts like “Coward” and “Sex God Sex” cropped up in recent setlists, on the whole the band’s focus is on generating new music and new experiences. As Gira has noted in multiple interviews, he holds no regard for mining the past out of any desire to re-create mythical “good old days”. Accurate though it would be to say that the music of Swans is about the here and the now, the sense of elation and transcendence that the group aims at with their music is one where “here” and “now” become moot categories. The pummeling sonic experiments in the latest three Swans releases is all about the erasure of everything, with pure immersion into the music being the ultimate goal.
With that in mind, the ten songs listed below take on a certain immediacy. It is hard to imagine Gira deciding to use the Swans name to make a pop record, but his obsession with constantly pushing the band’s style in new directions indicates that the public might be subjected to a very different version Swans as the years go on. This list, then, represents the outstanding songs that exist within one brief period of time for this boundary-pushing collective. While Swans 2.0 is responsible for some of the most compelling rock music of recent years, their passion for always amping things up means that Swans 3.0 probably isn’t far off.
(To Be Kind, 2014)
Though each member of Swans contributes something important to the group’s sound, the gang’s real ace in the hole is bass player Christopher Pravdica, who in playing the instrument that he does is tasked with a significant burden. Rhythm and groove are at the center of the music Swans 2.0 have been making on their past three LPs, which makes “She Loves Us!” an exemplar Swans cut. The song opens the second disc (or fourth LP, pending on your preference) of To Be Kind with an absolute gut-punch of a bassline. Pravdica sounds like he could lead an army in a triumphant battle march. Over the course of the 16 minutes that comprise this behemoth, the song ebbs and flows as only Swans can; which is to say, not so much “ebb and flow” as much as “gloriously rise” and “cacophonously fall”. Pravdica’s bass riff is joined by a vocal chant: “Now, now, now, now!” There again is a reminder that Swans is preoccupied with the present; the live version of “She Loves Us!” that appeared on the limited edition live collection Not Here/Not Now sounds substantially different. So too will it likely sound different on the upcoming Swans tour. But in the “now, now, now” of this studio version, “She Loves Us!” is a showcase of this band’s unrelenting power.
(The Seer, 2012)
“Sexy” is not really a word that would (or should, for that matter) come to mind when describing Swans 2.0. Yet, oddly enough, it sure seems like Gira is trying for something close with “The Seer Returns”, the groovy follow-up to the gargantuan title tune of The Seer. Many were perplexed when “A Little God from My Hands”, the first single from To Be Kind, dropped on the Internet; they weren’t sure what to do with the Nile Rodgers-esque guitar, to say nothing of the general funkiness of it all. But “The Seer Returns” had already—to some extent—brought the funk, as much as Swans could conceivably do it. Atop disturbingly intoned geographical observations (“There’s a jagged deep crack in the crust of the earth / Spreading from north to south”), the main groove struts in an odd time signature, a much needed respite from the pervasive sound of “The Seer”.
(My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky, 2010)
The gospel-like “Reeling the Liars In” is undoubtedly the Swans 2.0 track that bears the most resemblance to Gira’s project from 1999-2009, Angels of Light. This song, like many by that folk outfit, is one where Gira’s vocals can likened to Johnny Cash, but in classic Swans fashion, the lyrics take on a wholly unique kind of macabre. “We are removing their face / We are collecting their skin / We are reeling the liars in”, Gira lists off, as the rest of the band hums behind him—a nice bit of dark humor. Gira’s foray into song-oriented material with Angels of Light has since been replaced by lengthy pieces (which Gira often distances from the label “song”) that eschew basic formats, and for that reason “Reeling the Liars In” is definitely a minor moment in the pantheon of Swans 2.0. But this ode to destroying all those who manipulate the truth is, in its own little way, just as powerful as the long tunes.
(To Be Kind, 2014)
One might laugh when watching the live version of “Oxygen” performed at the 2013 Pitchfork Festival in Chicago. I certainly did. Seeing Gira dance around as Pravdica’s knees buckle by the weight of the song’s infectious bassline is not the kind of thing one is likely to see at most rock shows, even at one for a band like Swans. (For this song, Gira took off his trusty Gibson Lucille.) Yet that’s the kind of jam “Oxygen” is: written initially for Gira’s solo LP I Am Not Insane, it documents a particularly bad bout of asthma Gira suffered. The start-stop motion of the bass, when joined by the sharply strummed guitar chords, evokes the feeling of a body jerking back and forth, struggling for even the slightest gasp of air. “Oxygen” pays tribute to the necessity for air in a way that will leave you breathless.
(To Be Kind, 2014)
As many picks on this list have indicated (and more will indicate), I am of the opinion that the strongest tracks by Swans 2.0 are those that do what the lengthier pieces do in a much more concise runtime. Though in a live setting pieces like “The Seer” are to be reckoned with, on the studio LPs such lengthy experiments are often exhausting, particularly since both The Seer and To Be Kind run at a time-consuming two hours apiece. That being said, there is something genuinely transcendent about a feat like “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture”. “The Seer” is a mighty beast in its own right, but “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture” goes one step further, capturing the quasi-religious experience that Swans aim at in their live shows. The inner gatefold of Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy comes to mind: as a group of voices chants “Sun! Sun!”, the music reaches its euphoric climax. Religion is a frequent talking point in the music of Swans, and this example explains why. The second half finds Gira screaming the name of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture, along with political sayings like "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité!" Though separated by some 200 years, a common theme does emerge between the two: liberation. “Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture” is the sound of not just a band but music itself becoming liberated from all expectations.