Jarboe may finally be putting her past to rest.
A Mystery of Faith certainly feels like it is intended to be the nail in the coffin that allows Jarboe to put her history behind her and concentrate on the possibilities that come with the future. Her history with and attachment to Michael Gira as a member of Swans has been an inconvenient crutch since her solo career post-Swans began with the release of the painful purge of Anhedoniac. It’s difficult to argue that Swans were necessarily bad for her career — ’tis true, she’d likely never have garnered anything near her current fan base without being a longtime member of that band. Still, it was never a secret that Gira was the primary creative force behind Swans, and as such, Jarboe had never and has still not completely escaped Gira’s shadow. Fair or not, every mention of Jarboe carries with it the expressed or implied descriptor of “ex-Swan”. A Mystery of Faith is where Jarboe finally comes to terms with that status, at the same time sealing that chapter of her life and letting it go.
Important as Mystery of Faith is for Jarboe, however, it’s just as much a treat for her fans that have followed her career from the Swans era onward — the album is a comprehensive rarities compilation that spans her entire career. Given the number of reissues and compilations that Gira himself has released via his own Young God Records imprint, one wouldn’t think there would be all that much left in the vaults to be released. And largely, one would be right in thinking that — there aren’t all that many studio tracks to be found on this newest compilation. Even so, the discs are packed full of enough alternate versions, live tracks, and rare remixes to make even casual Jarboe devotees foam at the mouth.
Perhaps most notable are the long-awaited releases of “Come Out” and “The Man I Love”, two songs left off of both the original issue of The World of Skin (itself a compilation of the two long-deleted Skin albums) and Gira’s Children of God/World of Skin reissue. “Come Out” is a wonderful bit of rhythmic dance beats and Jarboe chants, complete with plenty of the horn-sounding synths I thought Coil had trademarked in the mid-’80s. It lends itself well to remixing, a fact made obvious here via the three mixes that appear back to back on the second disc. The “rap” and “dub” versions are particularly notable given the added spoken word section at the end of both that actually adds to the sexual vibe of the rest of the song. “The Man I Love” is, alternately, rather beautiful, borrowing liberally from Gershwin in its fantasy of undying love. It’s hard to tell whether it’s a sarcastic commentary on the unrealizable expectations of modern devotion or just a starry-eyed love song, but then, that’s part of its appeal.
Aside from those two tracks, the live takes on a number of Swans tracks are also intriguing. “Blackmail” is given a slow, deliberate piano backing as Jarboe’s voice builds ever so gently over its four minutes, ultimately culminating in a beautiful, a cappella howl of “Hold on / I’ll be your body when your body is broken”. Two versions of “Mother Father” appear, similar in their spitting, angry vocal, but surprisingly different in their instrumentation — placing the two back-to-back provides a stark view of the evolution of Swans’ live show. Less effective are the two versions of World of Skin’s “Still a Child”, both poorly recorded and providing little sense of contrast or reason for being.
Jarboe’s gift for interpretation is put on display a number of times as well, as live covers comprise much of the second disc. “Love Will Tear us Apart” is given a reverent, painful reading, backed only by Gira’s acoustic guitar, though it too suffers from poor quality in the recording. Her cover of Nick Drake’s “Black Eyed Dog” is urgent and intense, all manner of seething and growling emanating from our star. Two takes of the traditional “Wayfaring Stranger” are here as well, one backed by a spare drone, the other an a cappella rehearsal take recorded in Jarboe’s home. This latter interpretation closes the entire compilation, and it allows for two things — one, it’s a display of just how unique and beautiful Jarboe’s voice can be when unadorned by instrumentation or studio wizardry, and two, its release, something never meant for outside ears, is further proof of a level of intimacy between Jarboe and her listeners that is near unparalleled in the entire industry.
For all of the wonderful things on display with A Mystery of Faith, however, it’s still obvious while listening that, at heart, it’s still just a collection of odds ‘n sods. Multiple alternate versions, poor recording quality, and the occasional clunker (the title track, for instance) make themselves painfully obvious, particularly on repeated listens. So is it successful, then, as a means of closing the book on the past? That much remains unclear as well, as Michael Gira’s voice appears on two tracks over the course of the compilation, and he sounds authoritative and controlling on one (a rehearsal take of “Hypo Girl”) and outwardly perturbed on the other (the aptly named “Searing Sound Check…”). Regardless, A Mystery of Faith is a fascinating look at the past for an artist who will now, hopefully for her sake and ours, be able to concentrate on a fascinating present and infinitely promising future.