We Are Him showcases a side of Michael Gira that shares more in common with, say, Jim Thirlwell than it does Johnny Cash.
When Michael Gira recruited Akron/Family and created The Angels of Light Sing "Other People" for his Angels of Light project, it had seemed as though a blanket of calm had enveloped his songwriting. Despite the occasionally frenetic and always interesting instrumentation that Akron/Family provided that album, Gira sounded largely at peace, dissecting the values and troubles of others while exuding a sort of storyteller's confidence; he became the omniscient narrator, and he was comfortable with his role. At the time, it was easy to assume that at his age, at this stage in his long and storied career, he was done shocking us. Gira seemed ready to settle down into a pattern of strong, confident songwriting and collaborations that brought out the myriad strengths in those strong, confident songs.
We Are Him blows that theory clear out of the water.
Perhaps it's the fact that Gira is once again putting himself into his work, as Lord knows it's more difficult to write honestly about oneself than about others. Perhaps it's the state of the world around him, by any account an increasingly chaotic and tense place. Or, perhaps, it's simply the wish to fully utilize the talents and open-ended instrumental techniques that having a backing band like Akron/Family provides. Whatever the driving force may be, the aggressive side of Gira has returned like a lion. It's a side that shares more in common with, say, Jim Thirlwell than it does Johnny Cash. Even as Gira has all but abandoned distortion as a means to an end, the naked quality that the clean instruments and vocals possess make these performances all the more striking. Perhaps the most memorable moment on the album is one in "My Brother's Man", a song filled with plenty of intentional dissonance and hypnotic tunelessness backed by what could be a blues riff if it wasn't stuck in permanent loop. "No, God will never understand / I crush him in my brother's hand / I am the God of this fucking land," he offers three quarters of the way through the song as the instruments drop out entirely, leaving him entirly alone with only his off-kilter, disturbed psyche.
It is the plain and clear display of that same psyche that makes Gira's words as meaningful as they are as well, even if the language he uses tends to avoid the literal. "There's steel in the air and there's blood on the wheels / But there's nothing to fear because nothing here's real", he sings in "Promise of Water", choosing evocative imagery over plain-spoken sentiment. When he does traverse into the literal as on songs like "Good Bye Mary Lou", the language for his kiss-off drifts into metaphor before snapping back to reality: "You're suspended in time / Hanging naked from a barbed wire pine", Gira sings before dropping a "Mary Lou...fuh, fuh, fuck you", startling the listener with bluntness. No, it's not eloquent, but sometimes, emotion is ugly.
Rouding out the sound is a veritable army of collaborators, everyone from former Ministry (and current R.E.M.!) drummer Bill Rieflin, who actually contributes far more than just percussion, to Antony and the Johnsons' Julia Kent, who adds some lovely tones via the cello. Most striking, however, is Siobhan Duffy, who actually sings a haunting solo line in "Not Here/Not Now" along with other vocal turns (with new Young God signing Larkin Grimm) that span the rest of the album; historically, some of Gira's most brilliant moments were his musical dialogues with Jarboe, a pairing that Duffy's presence can't help evoke for both her gender and the perfect integration of her contribution. This type of vocal interplay is the type of thing that we never knew we missed until it came back. And it's back.
Then there are the perfect moments of subtlety, like the timing of "Joseph's Song"'s transition from acoustic dirge to sunny '60s pop song, and the way the piano in "Sometimes I Dream I'm Hurting You" manages to be selective about the moments it copies the vocal melody. We Are Him rewards repeated listens with these little treats, Easter eggs of musical accomplishment that can bring a knowing grin to even the jaded listener.
Despite all of the shock and the awe, once We Are Him does settle into repeated listening, it never quite reaches the consistent, memorable heights of ...Other People. It's a choppy album, it never settles into any sort of rhythm, and the moments that stick, that haunt you for days after you've heard them, are few. It is, however, still a very, very good album by a wonderful artist who steadfastly refuses to go gentle into that good night. As long as Gira lives, he will continue to rage, it seems, and anyone who hears him do so will be a little bit better off for it.