On Swans’ To Be Kind
As each generation of musicians ages, our idea of what decades-long careers can look like expands with the sample size. The most common fate for graying punks and art-rockers has been a gradual mellowing. Micheal Gira of Swans starting following that path. He spent the 80s making brutal noise music, and most of the 00s in an Americana phase. With his Angels of Light project, Gira strode through the freak-folk scene like a retired gun-fighter, spurs jangling in a sea of sandals. By the end of it, you felt him growing feral. He’d outgrown growing up.
The ATM that is the endless festival circuit has allowed many noisy bands to exist forever as a diminished version of themselves at their peak power. It’s a happy ending, until it starts to turn sad. With lots of respect but no defining hits, Swans were the rare act able to find new energy once they reformed. The Seer, from 2012, was a heavy and intimidating work: welcoming in bits, irrefutable in aggregate. Of all possible late-career moves, providing a logical starting point for new listeners three decades in is maybe the rarest.
Swans’ follow-up, To Be Kind, laughs at the thought of making a two-hour, career-defining masterwork just to wind down again. It’s as massive as The Seer—and as uninterested in waning attention spans. Its long songs repeatedly build to ecstatic intensity, hypnotically bashing through droning that layers the sacred on top of the profane. (Literally, on “She Loves Us” he screams “YOUR NAME IS FUCK! FUCK!” over a chorus of hallelujahs). Gira seems to have structured his career the same way he currently shapes a song, or an album, or Swans’ punishing live show: overwhelm the listeners at length; use breath-catching lulls to ready another roar. To Be Kind suggests a late-career period could be an extended plateau of epic-ness stretching forward to the sun, its end still somewhere out of sight.
An insular, uncompromised vision is always admirable, even when the result is unlistenable. (Try a recent Scott Walker album, why dontcha?) But Swans are kept vibrant by collaboration. Karen O cooed on The Seer; Annie Clark’s pretty, egoless backing vocals grace To Be Kind. Producer John Congleton is on the hottest streak in rock right now, working on formidable new records by St. Vincent, Angel Olsen, and Cloud Nothings, all before June. As engineer and mixer, he captures every ugly sound with stark clarity. To call Swans’ current music “terrifying,” as some have, is to exaggerate. Songs build to rousing climaxes, sweetness creeps into the pitch black, and moments of real pleasure emerge. It can be brutal, but it’s not sadistic. Gira is at least considering ears other than his own.
Discussing his songs with Pitchfork recently, Gira said, “None of them could be specifically tied to autobiographical experience, because that’s the height of indulgence in my view.” His view of indulgences, which are necessary and which are unforgivable, puts Gira in sharp contrast to aging songwriters like Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozalek, who drew great praise earlier this year for gravely speak-singing his autobiography on Benji. Dirges spreading out over 30 plus minutes? Fuck yeah! Raw diary entries? Fuck off! Rather than settling down to reckon with the life he’s lived, he just keeps on living.