Swans Leaving Meaning
Young God Records (LP/CD/DL)
Few bands have successfully navigated through such a long history of stylistic changes, personnel upheavals and emotional shifts as Swans. It helps that now after so many eras and bands and genres head Swan boss Michael Gira is officially christening what we have known for decades. That Swans is not a band but an extension to the outside world of….Michael Gira. Gira closed out the latest chapter of Swans very successfully in 2017, recording a slew of challenging, epic albums featuring for once a pretty stable core of willing musicians. A real band of sorts. Starting with 2010’s My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky and ending with 2017’s The Glowing Man Gira shepherded a core lineup through some of the best, thought provoking albums yet in the Swans canon. About as far away sonically from Swans brutal, ugly beginnings these later era albums found Gira in role of astute avant- garde troubadour.
For Leaving Meaning Gira is eschewing the idea of a “band” and curating an eclectic pool of musicians for each song with the musicians circling around Gira’s deceptively simple acoustic songs. If you think this would create an album full of varying styles and contrasts you would be mistaken, Gira as producer does not let the proceedings get too far away from the songs early acoustic beginnings. Gira has started this next chapter in Swans long history with an album steeped in subtle beauty and longing. That is not to say this is not heavy. It’s just these days Gira relies much more on tone, tension and atmosphere to create a sense of attack rather than the brutal force of the bands early beginnings. The music itself is cinematic in nature creating feeling and a sense of the epic.
Album opener Annaline starts Leaving Meaning off on a theme that will run concurrent through the album. A sense of subtle beauty, care and surprisingly, hope. Gentle piano strokes and atmospheric keyboard tones coalesce with Gira’s patient strummed acoustic guitar and his rich, unmistakable baritone draw the listener in while beautiful strings appear midway through the song to fully capture your attention. Gira’s tale hooks us and he takes us through love and longing…”I’m somewhere in you, and I’ll never get out….”
Different eras and shades of the past inform Leaving Meaning and second track The Hanging Man recalls the experimentation and krautrock leanings the band showcased on recent albums such as 2012’s The Seer and 2014’s To Be Kind. The dense interplay between drummer Larry Mullins and bassist Yoyo Roehm gives vocalist Gira a tight platform to caterwaul in his best imitation of crazed Southern preachers. Given the lyrical content of the song this type of comparison is not totally off base as Gira’s lyrics in this track are full of rantings of charismatic healings that brings to mind visions of sweaty Pentecostal preachers proselytizing in a gothic rundown Southern church. “….I steal the space between the filthy and the clean, healer come here soon, healer heal my wound, I am a dog, I eat the moon, healer, heal my lust, fill my mouth with rust……I am the hanging man!”
The krautrock exploits of The Hanging Man segue into the more subtle nuances of Amnesia. The song is simple folk tinged with country. Gira’s vulnerable vocal take is accented by haunting pedal steel floating in the background and orchestral tympani. One notable difference in this era of Swans is many songs are shorter, this track is no exception. The brief timing allows Gira to get right to the point. Its the only time on the album Gira gets political, “….the President’s mouth is a whore, when there’s murder the audience roars, there’s no room left here for the strong…”
After the gentle nature of the title track Leaving Meaning that seems to bookend well with Amnesia, the album gets a touch of the weird with Sunfucker. Gira shares vocal duties with the sisterly duo of Anna and Maria Von Hausswolff. The song seems an incantation, a stark contrast to the preceding beauty. The music eventually takes on a rocking turn towards the end of the track with Gira’s nonsensical vocal histrionics and a small vocal cameo from Jennifer Gira.
As good as the first LP of the album is the more effective of the two LP’s is the second of Leaving Meaning. The music begins with the stark beauty and cinematic moodiness of Hums, a brief instrumental that segues perfectly into the rest of the album. Comparisons with southern gospel exert their influence on the album as a whole. It is not a stretch of the imagination given Gira’s reputation as one of the most intense live performers in modern music. For Gira to be inspired by heated ramblings of salvation and damnation, guilt and redemption, hope and lust, frustration and anger is not out of the question.
These are all classic, familiar Swans tropes. Certainly the live experience of Swans can attest to Gira as ranting preacher, relying on stamina and volume to deliver a punishing, long set to the converted. A couple of songs on Leaving Meaning fulfill this comparison, particularly the next track Cathedrals of Heaven. If the title did not give it away the music itself is stretched out and there is plenty of room for the music to breathe. Gira’s slow baritone gives way to dulcimer and stark organ stabs. The gentle nature of the music belies the sometimes harsh nature of the lyrics, “….run your hands through my soil, feed your blood through my skull, fold back my skin and wash me with oil…” Gira ends the song with a nod towards the heaven as a means of amends, “…now I’m thinking your thoughts, you’re wearing my lips, if God is around it is him that we kiss….” Cathedrals of Heaven is certainly in the running for best song on the album and one of the most rewarding songs in Swans oeuvre. The organ washes add an odd, disorienting measure to the song’s effortless beauty. But not odd enough to break the continuity of the track.
Gira has a natural ability to select key players and utilize them to provide just the right context to his compositions. This is one of his greatest attributes as a producer is the careful selecting of musicians to correctly convey his vision onto record. This is most prominent on Leaving Meaning with Side C closer The Nub. Providing a sublimely ethereal vocal take guest vocalis Baby Dee meshes well with the slow building wall of music provided by Australian trio The Necks. This is where Gira and Swans shine, both in the past and now, constructing slow moving, dense walls of noise punctuated by tension. This song is about the closest fans of Swans past are going to get to that punishing wall of noise. Its an effective use of sound and serves as a perfect precursor to the next couple of songs.
The Southern Gospel influence discussed previously on Cathedrals of Heaven was more to do with tone, attitude and lyrical content. Side D opener Its Coming Its Real carries that influence into the actual music. The music is steeped in traditional folk stylings, country and gospel. The Von Hausswolff sisters are employed more effectively this time with gorgeous choir vocals. Their voices seemingly carry to the heavens and give Gira the lift he needs to drop his moody baritone and reach for the heavens himself. The track works amazingly well and if Gira ever wants to make a gospel album, I’m along for the ride. For all intents and purposes for me this is the album’s best track and shining star.
This is followed by the album’s second best track, the intense feeling and emotion of What Is This? Without taking into consideration the lyrical content just the sheer vulnerability and (I can’t believe I am going to write this) utter sweetness of Gira’s voice makes the tears start to well up. It’s odd to think of Swans through a history of dour anger, frustration, rage and lyrics ranging from guilt to self hatred to producing a duo of songs as upbeat and well…..filled with hope. Rarely does one walk away happy after hearing Swans. But that is the emotion that permeates after hearing these two tracks. Indeed hope is mentioned twice on the album and its mentioned again here. “…there is a star, in my throat, in a void, there is hope, in the space, in between…” Gira later exclaims, “who is this singing.” Only Gira himself knows whether this is a subtle wink to the listener showing incredulity of the happy nature of the song. I would like to believe it is.
In closing, many forms and echoes of the past take shape on Leaving Meaning. The music is sometimes reminiscent of more somber material like Gira’s Angels Of Light project or the last Swans foray The Glowing Man. Other tracks recall the experimentation of recent years. When all is said and done, Leaving Meaning is a wonderful, rewarding start to the next era of Swans music. And who knows where Gira’s vision will take Swans next? Maybe that Swans gospel album is in order.
*** Reviewer’s Note: The version that was reviewed was the LP which contains abbreviated versions of some songs and a different track order than the CD/DL. The LP also does not include the song “Some New Things” which can be found on the CD/DL version.