Swans’ ‘To Be Kind’ Is a Monolithic Orgy of Blood, Guts, and…Love
Release Date: May 13, 2014
Label: Young God
It will come as no surprise to learn that one of the most frequently used words on Swans’ new album is “no.” Michael Gira has a nihilist’s rep, after all. He once published a magazine called NO, and in their early years Swans ran in No Wave circles. Throughout the band’s career — from early songs like “Raping a Slave” through more recent fare like “You Fucking People Make Me Sick” — Gira has slathered himself in negativity like Iggy Pop in peanut butter, or like one of Herman Nitsch’s supplicants in lambs’ blood , which is a thing Gira actually did once. (“I think I fucked like a wild beast that night,” he recalled of the experience in a 1996 interview.)
But you want to know another word that turns up a ton on To Be Kind, the band’s 13th studio album, and their third since returning, in 2010, from a 13-year hiatus?
“Love” is the first word on the album; love is its center of gravity. The record positively swims in it. “Oh universe: You stink of love!” cries Gira in “A Little God in My Hands”; “Oh shit and blood! Forever love!” There’s this, from “Just a Little Boy” (which is not, incidentally, the first time Gira has sung from the perspective of an unborn child): “I’m not human, I’m not human/ I need love! I need love!” Plus this laundry list of domestic pleasures and terrors, from the languid, lysergic, creepy-but-tender “Some Things We Do”: “We fuck, we love, we forget, we regret/ We love, we love, we love, we love.”
Love! Most people, even fans of the band, tend to talk about Swans in terms of terror, darkness, and despair: the dope-sick and broken, the hungry and humiliated, the unremittingly bleak. But To Be Kind harnesses Swans’ crushing volume, pulverizing repetition and lacerating waves of feedback — all those conventionally aggro signifiers — to show us that love can be as vast and voracious as the void, and the void as welcoming as a lover’s embrace. They are one and the same. Here’s “She Loves Us,” with its church bells and breaking glass and melting strings, a glissando like the THX “Deep Note” being torn apart by eagles, an orgasm of sensual violence befitting of Greek mythology: “I am no thing / I am no one / Come to my mouth / Come to my tongue / I am your girl / I am your son […] Fun fun fun! / Mau mau mau! / Fuck fuck fuck! / Your name is fuck / I’m going home! I’m going home! / Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”
Longtime Swans listeners will recognize such extremes. In its scope and heft and overall intensity, To Be Kind is very much of a piece with 2012’s The Seer, an album that rolled up all 30 years of the band’s history into one huge molten supernova of ÜBERSWANSNESS. To Be Kind, which just as well could have been titled Everything Swans-er Than Everything Else, is essentially all that and then some, which is, truly, an awe-inspiring proposition. (If you are reading this review primarily as a consumer guide, by all means, just buy the damn thing, by hook or by crook; sell the house, sell the car, sell the kids, get the record, never come back.)
But in its emphasis on love, the new album also marks a return to the ideas Swans pursued on 1991’s White Light from the Mouth of Infinity and 1992’s Love of Life, in which acoustic textures and pedal steel and traces of Americana first made a major impact on the band’s sound, turning it from something hard and lumpy and muck-infested into something gossamer, flaxen, aerated. And its lyrical themes reach all the way back to the late 1980s, at least, to Children of God’s conflation of sexual and religious ecstasy (see, for instance, “Sex, God, Sex”). Perhaps that album was the genesis of Gira’s interest in tantric sex, a thing he’s been talking a lot about in recent interviews.
Speaking of tantric sex, this would probably be a good place to note that To Be Kind is itself something of an endurance test. Like The Seer, it is two full hours long. (Actually, its exact running time is 2:01:13, and the fact that it bests its predecessor by two minutes and two seconds is probably no accident.) Where The Seer’s title track ran 32:14, To Be Kind’s centerpiece is 34:04, and four more songs crack the 10-minute mark; only one song, in fact, is under seven minutes long. It’s that kind of record.
Still, make all the goes-to-11 jokes you want, but the album never feels long. In large part that’s because Swans are clearly at the peak of their powers here, not so much a band as an organism. Gira has said that the songs developed organically during the last few years of touring, and you can sense that from both their unhurried pacing — at this point, the live band is basically a dirge-rock-gone-gamelan behemoth, capable of hammering out a single chord all damn night, if that’s what it takes — and their muscular rhythmic interplay and skull-peeling timbres. They’ve also expanded their stylistic dimensions in surprising ways. “Just a Little Boy,” dedicated to Howlin’ Wolf, is a searing acid blues in the vein of the Stooges’ “Dirt”; “Oxygen” is the most vital funk-punk groove to come around since James Chance exhorted members of the No Wave Nation to contort themselves into pretzel-shaped knots of skronk.
Throughout, Gira sounds like a man possessed. If you’ve seen the band’s shows in recent years, beheld his inimitable stage presence — by turns bandleader, confessor, penitent, shaman — you will know what to expect. His voice here is an animal with claws bared; it is a ragged whirlwind; it is the moon tugging at your marrow. On the surging, pummeling “Bring the Sun / Toussaint L’Ouverture,” he just lets it all rip, screaming in Spanish about life and love and blood and God: “Sangre de Dios! Hijo de Dios! Amor de Dios! Sangre es vida! Vida es sangre! Sangre es amor! Amor es sangre! Amor! Amor! Toussaint! Toussaint!” There’s a moment where the gurgle in his voice recalls his wails of “Own me!” on 1984’s “Your Property,” so it seems especially notable that the song is dedicated to Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture, “the Black Napoleon,” who led the island’s slaves to freedom.
Ultimately, To Be Kind’s paean to love is also a love letter to freedom itself — freedom not just as a political idea but an essential state of being. “No pain, no death, no fear, no hate,” Gira chants on the opening “Screen Shot”; “No time, no now, no suffering / No touch, no loss, no hand, no sense / No wound, no waste, no lust, no fear.” It goes on like that for some time; he is both specific and exhaustive as he crosses items off his list – all these ideas to be undone. At the same time, the song amounts to an invocation, an assonant tumble of nouns and verbs and adjectives, non-hierarchical, totemic: “Love, child, reach, rise / Sight, blind, steal, light / Mind, scar, clear, fire / Clean, right, pure, kind / Sun, come, sky, tar…” It is the word made flesh, the light at the end of the tunnel, sex and God and death all spun into a single, all-encompassing vortex.
For all of this lyrical close-reading, though, the force of the album doesn’t lie primarily in its language. I keep going back to Gira’s recollection of Herman Nitsch’s blood orgy, in part because “A Little God in My Hands” seems pretty explicitly to reference that experience, with its “pink little lamb on a granite slab,” its “shit and blood,” its fetid funk.
“The main thing I took away from the event,” Gira recalled, “besides a stink that I couldn’t wash off for weeks, was the sense of being overwhelmed by the blood and sound, the way it slowed down time, and I wanted it to go on forever. In a way it was a really pure religious experience.”
Save, perhaps, for the stench, you could say much the same of To Be Kind, as all-consuming a ritual as rock music is capable of giving us, and also as viscerally, joyously life-affirming. “What’s my name?” shouts Gira at the song’s end, as the band’s live-wire blues explodes into a high-frequency din of oscillators run amok. “Oh yeah! Oh yeah! The universal mind!” It is a blinding sound, all the colors of the rainbow whipped into a single, searingly white beam of light; as climaxes go, it is unabashedly carnal as well as metaphysical in nature, and the only appropriate response is a hissing intake of breath and a single syllable: “Yes.”