by Adam Brill ’17
Michael Gira is a man unafraid to follow his instincts wherever they take him. Gira’s biography alone can tell you this. He hitchhiked through Europe, ended up in Israel, and spent four months in prison for selling drugs all before his 18th birthday. Gira eventually received his GED, went to art school in LA, and moved to New York City to start a band, Circus Mort. He recorded one EP with Circus Mort, and then promptly disbanded the group to start a second project, Swans. Swans’ early releases were marked by heavy abrasive sounds and little melody or tonality. Eventually, female vocalist and devoted Swans follower Jarboe joined Gira. Jarboe’s presence lead the group to soften their sound a bit in favor of more sophisticated songwriting and textures. Gira also quit alcohol and found Jesus, which obviously influenced the songwriting on their 1987 release, Children of God. This album is, in many ways, the most important release in Swans’ career. It marked the first album with acoustic guitars, melodic vocals, strings, and woodwind instruments. Thematically, the album shows Gira’s religious influences. Instead of purely pounding noises, Children of God is much more musically varied. This allows for more interesting song dynamics and ultimately makes the music a lot more listenable. The releases following Children of God continued to explore this newfound songwriting style. In 1996, Swans released their supposedly final album, Soundtracks for the Blind. This gargantuan release (a whopping 2 hours and 20 minutes) was by far their weirdest, longest, and most ambitious release. Musically, Soundtracks for the Blind, runs the gambit from post rock textures to noise to gothic rock to bizarre sampled skits while still maintain a consistent vision throughout. Many publications referred to the album as the band’s masterpiece. It seemed like a fitting and apropos way to go out for one of rock’s most forward thinking outfits of the past 10 years.
After Soundtracks for the Blind, Swans disbanded. It seemed like a permanent move. How could they possibly follow the ambition of Soundtracks for the Blind? Gira, in 2010, made the bold move of reuniting Swans. They released the relatively short album, My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope, which is a respectable yet unremarkable album. However, 2012’s The Seer is a different story. Clocking at just less than 2 hours, The Seer is a long and difficult album. Also with The Seer, Swans began to pursue a new style of songwriting. The album is a lot heavier and punchier than Soundtracks for the Blind or My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope, but still keeps the ambition and the eclectic instrumentation. The Seer manages to be just as noisy and heavy as their original no-wave material while also throwing in lighter songs for a much-needed contrast. Thematically, the album is surprisingly cohesive in it’s doomed hellish visions. The album was a major statement from a band that had a long hiatus and an aging leader. Comebacks like that of Swans are rare and even could be considered unprecedented. Gira himself stated, “It’s the culmination of every previous Swans album as well as any other music I’ve ever made, been involved in or imagined.”
The Seer was an album good enough to put an old school band back on the map of modern music. It gained Swans a new fan base in the younger generation. However, even as a fan of both Swans and The Seer, I was very skeptical as to what the future held in store. How could Gira and company follow up an album that was the culmination of their entire discography? The Seer seemed like one of those pieces of art that would stand out at the obvious masterpiece in a lengthy discography. How wrong I was.
To Be Kind was gradually hyped up early this year. First, Swans revealed the artwork and released a single (“A Little God in My Hands.”) The artwork, a screaming baby head with a mustard yellow background, was perplexing to me before the album came out. The song was catchy for a Swans release. That is, until the sheets of noise hit following the chorus. The song was enough to get me intrigued in the album. I wasn’t expecting another The Seer, but I was certainly excited for the release. Next, Swans dropped “Oxygen.” This next track was not as catchy as the first, but was captivating and cathartic. I was ready for the album.
When I begun to listen to To Be Kind, the cover art began to make so much sense. Gira’s vocals and lyrics reflect a certain primal emotion. For example, on “Just a Little Boy (For Chester Burnett),” Gira yells out “I’M JUST A LITTLE BOY” repeatedly in a grating whine. The title references Howlin Wolf, who, apparent by his name, had a certain cathartic, primal, and desperate quality to his bluesy yells. Gira’s vocals certainly harken back to that style in their own unique way. The picture of the baby certainly makes sense after listening to this song. It’s both an expression of Gira’s primal childhood instincts as well as a suggestion of timelessness and agelessness. Throughout the album, these basic human instincts are present both lyrically and musically. “She Loves Us,” has Swans in the familiar territory of ranting about love and sex. Here, not unusual for Swans, love is out of the equation. It is mainly about sex. The pounding instrumentals are ominous to say the least. Lyrically, it is seductive and crude. The song is very animalistic. He repeatedly commands the listener to “come to my house.” The end of the song has Gira repeatedly screaming “your name is fuck! fuck! fuck!” The vocals are grating and cathartic. He is appealing to a human instinct and how we are slaves to it. We are tied by name not to just love, but to sex, to “fuck.” These animalistic traits we have are further explored in the track “Some Things We Do.” In a very repetitive fashion, Gira just lists off basic things humans do (“We seed, we feel, we need, we fight We seal, we cut, we seek, we love.”) By the end of the track, he settles on “We love We Love We Love We Fuck We Love.” This shows that even Gira isn’t cynical enough to discount love in favor of animalistic sex. He believes in this human capacity.
The album’s title track, “To Be Kind,” comments on empathy and kindness. Musically, the song is much less pounding and much more subdued to start. The lyrics mention being kind, lost, “sung by a song that’s untrue,” and, eventually, “to be found in the sound of this room.” The vocals end with Gira uttering the lines “There are millions and millions of stars in your eyes.” To me, this song is about our basic human duty to find each other, to love each other, and to see the good in each other. The song ends in a cacophonous wall of noise to suggest a sort of transcendence into these stars.
Swans are one of the most difficult bands to “get into.” To Be Kind is another lengthy (just over 2 hours) and noisy album. Just like The Seer, Swans have constructed an impressive, thematically cohesive journey. The album is repetitive but that is largely the point of Swans’ music. The repetitive noise is sometimes pounding and punishing on the ears, but it also leaves a lot of room for the listener to explore the textures and subtleties of Swans’ instrumentation. Unlike many post rock bands, Swans are able to use repetition to build tension and crescendos without boring the listener. Gira’s vocals are much more in the forefront of To Be Kind than they were on The Seer. On this album, Gira has found new ferocity to his low grating voice, which makes this album all the more thrilling. But to say that his voice is all yells is selling it short. He still is capable of phrasing a long drawn out drone from the deepest parts of his range to add a very dark sinister tone to the songs. This is done to perfection on the centerpiece track, “Bring the Sun/ Toussaint L’ Ouverture.” The vocals and the instrumentation both build at glacial pace but what a climax. This track exhibits a complete mastery of the art of tension and release as it takes us through thrilling noise and restraint.
With To Be Kind, Swans have managed to equal The Seer in many ways, but thematically, I find it’s themes to be a lot more relatable. In a large, impressive discography, To Be Kind is certainly a standout. This is a band on a very impressive and unprecedented run and To Be Kind is their latest gem.