At about the three-quarter mark of The Angels of Light Sing “Other People”, the newest album from Michael Gira’s Angels of Light, a beautiful serene calm takes over. Those familiar with Gira’s output over the course of his career generally know better than to expect anything that can be described as “calm” when he’s at the forefront of a musical project — “quiet” or “subdued”, perhaps, but never so lacking in tension as to be described as “calm” — yet “To Live Through Someone” gets by on quiet guitars and a gentle ebb and flow that could rock its listeners quietly to sleep if they’re not careful. As if to address this stylistic incongruity, Gira sings in a baritone courageously pushed to the absolute front of the mix: “No, I’m not what I was or will ever become / Just watching, now waiting, to live through someone… else”. And there, after the lion’s share of the album has passed, lies the mission statement of The Angels of Light Sing “Other People”.
More characters inhabit this album than most of the books I’ve read lately. Perhaps that speaks more to the selection of literature that’s crossed my eyes in recent days than it does to the album in question, but every single song on The Angels of Light Sing “Other People” is dedicated to someone, with subjects ranging from Gira’s close friends to those who never seem to be able to extract themselves from our television screens. Each song is a vignette, related to any other song only in the fact that its subject happens to be someone Gira knows, either personally or distantly via media exposure, dreams, and the like. Akron/Family, a recent signing to Gira’s Young God Records label, is along for the ride as well, providing some fascinating backing textures for these musical portraits. Gira himself describes Akron/Family as a group whose members each “play about 20 instruments with varying degrees of skill”, so there’s no shortage of novel sounds to be found on each track as the album progresses. Indeed, it is very likely Akron/Family’s involvement that keeps …”Other People” from turning into a fairly pointless collection of acoustic ballads, best kept to the friends, family and “other” that Gira happens to be singing about.
The involvement of Akron/Family is at its best when Gira’s lyrics are at their least notable. “My Friend Thor” is propelled by layers upon layers of vocals, guitars, unidentifiable percussion instruments and other acoustic-sounding things, all while Gira speak-sings virtues like “The hair on your body could clothe a small nation”. Most effectively, the wall of sound all but completely drops out, leaving nothing but sparse, tribal percussion as Gira tells us just what makes this particular Thor so special: “When we hit the black ice / Then Thor saved our lives…” It’s this sort of instrumental attention to detail that makes careful listening to this album such a treat.
Even so, the mix of the album makes it very clear that any musical backing, inventive and immersive as it may be, is still simply backdrop for Gira’s tales. Gira can be heard loud and clear on every single one of …”Other People”‘s songs, and there’s never any mistaking what he’s saying. It’s loud and clear that the one thing Gira does not want is for his words to be misunderstood, even when their meanings are cloaked in impenetrable metaphor.
Gira has a gift for turning the ordinary into poetry, and that gift is in full form on …”Other People”. Over a gentle, upbeat acoustic background, opener “Lena’s Song” doesn’t really give a specific literal idea as to who Lena is, but there’s a clear sense of rebirth and redemption in the lyric. “And there beside the turquoise beach / Her milk-amber eyes will see again”, sings Gira, evoking a picture of Lena in the listener’s mind without actually describing any physical attributes other than the color of her eyes. It’s an admirable feat, one repeated throughout the album. “Simon is Stronger than Us” gets a bit more literal than most, with specific, often hilarious couplets like “He finally got rid of that interesting bitch / Who mocked him in public and treated him like shit”. Still, “He makes a new world out of love”, and even Simon, in the short minute and a half he’s given, turns into an endearing character that we’re meant to care about. Gira has the talent to make us truly care about his characters, even when those characters remain nameless — characters like “The Kid” and “My Sister” are just as real as anyone.
Just as fascinating as his care for the mundane is his tackling of celebrity. “Michael’s White Hands” is basically a series of mantras, inspired by the constant spectacle of one Mr. Jackson. Its noisy, circular patterns owe more to Gira’s past as the driving force behind Swans, the primary voice of his musical career pre-Angels of Light, than any other piece here. “Michael’s White Hands” is downright terrifying when put in the context of the rest of the portraits here, a slow burn with Akron/Family providing constant chatter and tense, often dissonant musical layers. “Feed his thirst with our drugs / Michael’s hands will touch us” condemns the constant public attention he’s given, but soon enough, Gira falls in with the rest, pleading “Michael, kill that child inside” with all the force he can muster. Gira eventually settles on the conclusion of “I believe in Michael’s hands”, an interesting conclusion open to interpretation, evasive enough that it never condemns nor vindicates its subject. Less emotionally exhausting is Gira’s tribute to his fallen hero, Johnny Cash, in the pleasing (if a slight bit uninteresting) country shuffle that is “Let It Be You”. Gira’s recent work has often been compared to Cash, not least for the baritone, deeply timbred voice the two share, making “Let It Be You” a pleasing acknowledgement of Cash’s influence that never actually mentions the man by name.
Even as Gira acknowledges in “To Live Through Someone” that “Some of us are a waste of life”, the underlying message of The Angels of Light Sing “Other People” would seem to be that all of us are worth a story, as good, evil, or unnoticed in the so-called “grand scheme” as we may be. Gira has, however quietly, immortalized these twelve characters with his songs. Were that we could all have a Michael Gira to do the same for us.