Premature Evaluation: Swans To Be Kind
Have you ever heard voices? The sound of people echoing around in your head, unsettling you deeply, even when you know they’re not real? I have. Only a couple of times. Didn’t last long. I was at the library near my house one day once, maybe nine years old, spending hours paging through old movie reference books because I was a weird kid, almost falling asleep, when I heard my mom’s voice. She wasn’t talking, exactly. Or maybe she was. I could definitely hear my name a few times, but everything else was a damp echoing blur. It was like she was multitracked, layers of shards of words coming at me from every direction, never adding up to something I could interpret. She sounded pissed at me; I knew that much. But I couldn’t piece together why. And it wasn’t really her, anyway. It was my brain, fucking with me. It terrified me. Today, decades later, I think about that moment and my blood runs cold. The reason I’m bringing it up is that there’s a moment maybe eight minutes into “Just A Little Boy (For Chester Burnett),” the second song on the new Swans album To Be Kind, that brings me back, viscerally, to that moment.
Chester Burnett is the real name of the mythic blues figure Howlin Wolf, and up until that moment, the song has been sort of a broken blues vamp, a twangy guitar figure ringing out over and over, into infinity, while Swans leader Michael Gira intones portentous poetry: “I sleep in the belly of love / And I sleep in the belly of ocean.” Then, he stops doing that and goes into this primal moan: “I need looooooove. And then. The laughter. There’s this cloud of laughter that rolls in, multitracked, echoing, falling from the ceiling, mocking and arrhythmic, fading in and fading out. That’s when Gira starts honking “I’m just a little boy” in this nasal playground-bully voice, losing the groove of the song entirely, his voice starting to break into speaking-in-tongues chatter or animalistic grunts, leaving behind meaning entirely. And that laughter, which comes back again and again, sounds enough like my mom’s voice in my head that it triggers this almost war-flashback dread-feeling, this unshakable dark beyond-words feeling, dredging bad things from my soul. Maybe you’ve never heard voices, or, if you have, maybe they’ve been plain sentences that you could understand. Maybe that laughter does nothing to you, or maybe you think it’s just a cool and freaky sound. But when a band can do that, can access some dark formative part of your core, you have to stop thinking about things like “Is this album better than their last album?” or “Where will this album rank on my year-end list?” or whatever. You have to close your eyes, breathe it in, and let the band do its work on you.
What do you do after The Seer? If other bands were brave enough to make an album like that in the first place, that’s still the sort of question that might still terrify them. Two years ago, and 30 years after he started Swans in the first place, Michael Gira described The Seer as the culmination of everything Swans had ever been about. He’d started the band within the context of New York postpunk and stood out even among the demons there, pushing confrontational art to religious-ecstasy levels and maybe sort of helping to invent industrial music in the process. Swans stuck around for a while, tried out different ideas, evolved into a sort of dark neoclassical group, broke up in the late ’90s. Gira kept making music with other groups, most notably Angels Of Light, before realizing that he missed the all-out overwhelming transcendence of a Swans show, of riding those waves of ugly/beautiful noise. So he got a new versions of the band together, with some old members and some new, including a brutally gifted caveman-looking drummer named Thor. (I knew who Thor Harris was for years before Gira recruited him for Swans, and yet I’m still half-convinced that Gira invented the man.) With their first post-reunion album My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky, Swans did something that not too many reunited bands do; they tapped into the deep essence of what had always made the band great, and they made something worthy of the name. With The Seer, their second post-reunion album, they went way beyond that, conjuring dark and nameless forces and coming up with a blast of hate so severe and soul-steamrolling that it’s just not fair to compare it to any other music. It’s sacred, devotional death-music, and it sounds like nothing else. So how do you follow that?
But Swans are not an ordinary band, and they don’t seem to be the types to worry about how to follow up a massive achievement of an album. They don’t look at things like that, and that question doesn’t make sense to them. Instead, the realize the heavy energies they tapped into on The Seer, and they just tap right back into them again. With The Seer, they realized that nothing was stopping them from making a two-hour album, an album full of these half-hour songs, these clanging monolithic noise-symphonies. And now they’ve just done it again. To Be Kind, like The Seer before it, pushes dark ideas into darker places, stretching grooves beyond any logical breaking point and losing themselves in the beautiful grind of their music. As with The Seer, the massive song-lengths on To Be Kind never feel grueling because the entire thing blurs into one titanic smoking whole in the end anyway. Like The Seer, To Be Kind demands to be experienced in one whole sitting, without distractions. To hear the album right, you have to dim lights, turn phones off, give yourself over to it completely. Like The Seer, it’s a draining, purifying experience, the sort of journey you have to embark on alone because other people are going to hear these druidic sound-bombs coming from your speakers and worry about your mental health. And the question of whether To Be Kind is better than The Seer isn’t a question at all; it just doesn’t scan. One exists, and the other exists, and that’s all you need. That’s miraculous enough unto itself.
The two albums aren’t the same or anything. The Seer more or less created the parameters, built this whole universe of severity, and To Be Kind is free to just go nuts in it. Parts of it are as playful as they are uncompromising, like the squiggly, scraggly free-jazz groove on “A Little God In My Hands” or the shaker-heavy almost-disco beat that kicks into “She Loves Us!” when it nears the halfway mark. There are more riffs, including a few moments that veer close to epic doom-metal territory. But this isn’t a kinder or more relaxed Swans. Gira does more screaming here than I’ve heard him do before, and plenty of what he screams barely registers as words, if it does at all. There’s a religious element to a lot of this: The rest of the band drone-chanting “Alleluia” while Gira repeatedly screams “fuck!” during “She Loves Us!,” the meditative omm sounds on the endless “Bring The Sun / Toussaint L’Ouverture,” the layered-up church bells on “Kirsten Supine.” The Seer had that brief burst of conventional beauty when Karen O wafted in to sing “Song For The Warrior,” and To Be Kind has nothing like that. It’s straight screaming into the void from beginning to end; only the pitch and intensity of the scream vary.
At this point, I realize that I’ve described To Be Kind less as a rock album and more as a book of hellish incantations that you might find in the basement of an isolated wooded cabin during an ill-fated camping trip. That’s not quite right. To Be Kind is, after all, a rock album, and it’s an expert one, one that accomplishes every one of its goals. Gira sounds huge and indomitable. The band manages these catastrophically huge and crushing rhythms, each member completely locked in with each other member. The recording, from ace indie rock producer John Congleton, captures each death-roar but also each rare quiet moment in bright, sharp, merciless fidelity. There are even a few shockingly human moments, like the times Annie Clark shows up to softly sing along with Gira’s weathered baritone, or the count-off that begins “A Little God In My Hands.” (Thought I’d accidentally rolled over a Big Mac Mash-Up ad the first time I heard that count-off. Swans don’t need count-offs!) There’s a great use of dymanics at work here, and the album-closing title track even lets in a few shreds of calm and hope. All that said, this is not a rock album to be consumed the way you’d consume another rock album. It is different. It is a rock album of hellish incantations. Treat it with respect, and caution, and reverence. It will fuck you up.