leaving meaning. by SwansRelease date: October 25, 2019
Label: Young Gods Records
Michael Gira is a master, first and foremost, of reincarnation. Since their inception in 1982, Swans have gone through so many different iterations, both in personae and personnel, that a book must surely be forthcoming. Even the most devout follower of the artistic construct known as Swans surely needs their Wikipedia entry open on their phone if quizzed by the whomsoever strange individual that might be willing to lose themselves in the band’s morass of sonic solemnity and outright aural terror.
Following the ten years and change silence since Gira announced SWANS ARE DEAD in 1997, the band famously, shockingly returned in January of 2010 with a new song posted on their MySpace page (remember MySpace?). Quite literally, drop mic. And so, began an incredible return, ushering forth a creative, epiphanic disgorgement of material; a series of albums – all critically acclaimed and rightly so – that is arguably the most consistent output of their career.
Their is an interesting word to use when it comes to Swans. Almost since birth, Swans have remained a maelstrom of different masks, instruments and perspectives, as previously alluded to. Swans has always been a band. But, equally, it has always been Michael Gira. Don’t misunderstand – by this we do not mean that he is the spotlight, although that, too, is true. Gira is simply the through line: the band leader and only musician to be active in every year one can attribute to Swans and also the only figure present on all official original albums. Their is a difficult word to use for leaving meaning. because, once again, Swans is a band, and is Gira, but for the first time isn’t a band, is still Gira, and – more to the point – is most definitely a selection of musicians being Swans.
To explain, the artist known as Swans, is now Michael Gira with “a revolving cast of contributors”. This may not feel like news per se, but it moves the Swans story ever on, and, as always, Gira immediately problematises the first conclusion one may leap to (i.e. that finally he is shown clearly to be principle songwriter and the other musicians present are simply fleshing out the vision), by reading the linear notes, showing that some (major) songs on this new album seem to have been written without all that much development from Gira – namely the title track and ‘The Nub’ being principally constructed by Australian experimental group The Necks. Swans continue to be, effortlessly, unknowable, unclassifiable.
It is easy to become selfish as a listener of music. One can consistently sound forward thinking and claim that you desire to be challenged at all times by bands, even those you count as your favourites. But there’s definitely something in our brains – maybe that base reptilian part at its darkest core – that desires that those we value most highly just deliver, pretty please, something as good as, maybe even pretty much like, the previous exalted missive. The danger they might deliver something subpar simply too crushing to contemplate. This was where, I believe, many found themselves in 2017 when Gira once again announced that black was not black, that white was not white, and that Swans would cease to perform, record and exist in their near beatific incarnation. A bullet through the head of one still so young! The announcement of a new album earlier this year was certainly cause for celebration, but also apprehension. What did it mean? What would it sound like? The nagging question of what if? from the abandoned manifestation.
leaving meaning. is the fifteenth studio album from Swans. It is, in pure, glorious defiance, absolutely sublime. Let’s be clear – if you’re not used to ‘difficult’ music, this is not for you. To be kind, I advise you to leave through the side door quietly. Retaining clarity – this new album is different, once again, from the majority of that which has gone before. While it is unmistakably Swans, and those who have enjoyed recent albums will surely delight in drowning in these ninety minutes and more of mind-altering music, it is also unquestionably an alteration of course. A change will naturally come from a transition of line-up, but it does very clearly come from Gira, too: leaving meaning. is probably about as close as we have yet come to a record that blends what makes Swans, well, Swans, and Angels of Light, Gira’s folk band that primarily existed in the aforementioned dark ages between the two ages of his principle lifetime endeavour. Almost like a rupture in the time space continuum, it seems to have arrived from both Swans circa The Great Annihilator(1995) and their latest triple threat of remarkable, unique albums – all now interweaving with collaborations and contributions from some of the finest musicians around today. leaving meaning. features The Necks, as previously mentioned, and also talents as diverse as Ben Frost, Anna von Hausswolff, Maria von Hausswolff, Baby Dee, and so many more.
Perhaps the only thing that can be expected from Swans is Gira’s utter disdain for compromise. The album is once again long, once again challenging, and challenges the listener to pay attention, interact with what is on offer, think even, and give it their undivided concentration. This disdain transmutes to his lyrics, too. There is a nihilistic fatalism constantly at play in the words uttered. Quite appropriately the PDF of the album’s lyrics, provided in the PR pack for this review, are typed out in a haphazard way; there’s double or even triple spaces between words occasionally, handfuls of words are suddenly in capitals which often doesn’t actually echo how they are delivered on record, there’s dots, dashes and assorted punctuation, but absolutely no line breaks. Printed out, it wouldn’t surprise me to find the words sliding off the page, or bleeding into the page like blotting paper, or perhaps curling around one another, tightly intertwining, not trusting the viewer to quite grasp the message without the music playing.
The album needs time. You will need time. It unfolds like a flower in one of those slow-motion shots in nature documentaries – beautiful to behold, unusual to witness, unnaturally quick, naturally breathtaking. ‘Annaline’ follows little opener ‘Hum’ and introduce us to the new direction of sound. The jeopardy so often communicated through Swans back catalogue rears its angsty head with ‘The Hanging Man’, one of the most powerful tracks on the record. Meticulously constructed and conducted, it moves with a primal groove and brings through some of the dissonance that has featured so faultlessly on recent records, such as The Seer. And while this peril revisits the landscape of leaving meaning. again, it is only really distilled to its most Platonic form on this track. ‘Amnesia’ features the powerful choral rebellions of sisters von Hausswolff, over a demented dulcimer and a depressed Southern Gothic of a guitar line. It shouldn’t work. It does. Go figure.
The title track is an almost constant crescendo. A meditation on very little, it is the epitome of Swans, ironically – perhaps as tribute – written by The Necks. It wraps itself around a refrain, a leitmotif, both sonic and lyrical and endlessly punishes the listener, again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again. It is mesmeric. ‘Sunfucker’, which one might legitimately assume would follow ‘The Hanging Man’s’ suit, given that title, turns out to be something quite different; a transgressive, quite-differently-hypnotic, tribal hymn. ‘Cathedrals of Heaven’ is a track that definitely requires numerous, closer listens. At first, it seems painfully simple, and perhaps missing the explosion of sound one might have enjoyed on the past handful of albums. But the devil is in the details, and once one begins to peel away the layers, patina upon patina of thought through diligent songwriting flows out. It is quite remarkable!
‘The Nub’, the longest track on the album (but that pales into insignificance considering running times of songs on Swans back catalogue), is also a track heavily involving jazz/noise/drone trio The Necks and is easily the one where they exhibit their penchant for improvisation. With Gira taking a step back and jamming with the rest of group, the wild bass and drums take centre stage before Baby Dee’s haunting, deeply affecting voice cuts across, all the while ‘The Nub’ building and engorging to a scintillating climax.
First single ‘It’s Coming It’s Real’ then appears. A Southern rock twang, still with a sense of menace that comes from the noisy, industrial routes of New York, and all the experimentalism of guitar work of late 80s early Melvins, the 90s deconstruction of Harvey Milk and the contemporary drone of Sunn O))) all enmeshed and delivered via the medium of acoustic guitar. Apocalyptic folk may be a moniker fairly well known, perhaps even attributed to Swans previously, but it is apt and completely fitting to pair with what is happening throughout leaving meaning.
‘Some New Things’ and ‘What is This?’ are certainly a pair, both giving the listener much needed respite, as they employ more traditional, straightforward structures and guitar work. The former is a CD exclusive, and while it is very good indeed, it is perhaps the only dip, if one can really attribute that terms to it, that features on Swans’ new album. As both serve as palette cleanser it seems somewhat arbitrary, like a second sorbet between courses at a fine dining restaurant – delicious but serving little purpose. But, perhaps, on reflection, one may need two goes at clearing the mind, when the closing track ‘My Phantom Limb’ is as powerful, all-encompassing and downright retched in all the best ways, as it is. A rhythm section that seems to stalk the air, and ambience that should prove a balm but is anything but, all curate an atmosphere to bring leaving meaning. to its artistic zenith. Lyrics talk of the chaos of life, of the breakdown of existence, all while the music comes tumbling down around it – the building blocks of the idea of Swans dissolving towards an inevitable end. Are they venerating such a breakdown? Celebration? Fear? A contemplative mirror to life right now and how Gira has dealt with the band and his own life in the past years? Who knows, but it’s devastating in content and execution.
Another triumph from a band who just can’t stop. Even when there’s no longer a band. Not really… Except there is. And now there’s this.
leaving meaning. is one of this year’s most essential listens, no doubt. No, really.