With the release of Swans’ 1987 masterpiece Children of God, many point to a noted change in the band’s sound. I hesitate to call it a change in direction, but more of an evolution of Gira’s vision. Any band worth its weight in salt is always going to push itself, continually challenging and evolving its sound. That is exactly what Michael Gira and Swans had been doing since their formation in the New York No Wave scene in 1982. Consistently present was the extreme heaviness, the sludge-paced tempos that make adagios feel like pop music, the distortion and detuned instruments and overall, the volume — the extreme volume.
As Swans evolved, all of that remained. The blueprint was well established and they were just expanding on the existing architecture. One such expansion, perhaps the most important in the band’s entire history, was the addition of two highly influential new members: Algis Kizys as a second bass player and vocalist/keyboardist Jarboe La Salle Devereaux, or simply, Jarboe. When people mention the change in Swans’ sound with Children of God, what they are in fact referring to is the expanded role that Jarboe took on this album.
Jarboe first appeared on the Swans’ Time Is Money (Bastard) EP, credited for simply, “scream”. With her wordless background vocals coming in and out on the album’s title cut, Jarboe expanded her presence on the follow-up full-length Greed. However, for the true markings of these so-called changes and transitions, we must look to Holy Money. Released a year before Children of God, Holy Money (and the A Screw EP) features the prominent use of acoustic instruments via the guitar and piano. With her range beginning to be explored here, from hauntingly soft to gospel/blues infused wails, Jarboe elegantly sings over a simple piano as on “You Need Me” or the similarly designed “Blackmail” (from A Screw, and reappearing on Children of God), one of Gira’s most poignant love lyrics. This performance marks Jarboe’s debut at lead vocal, and though all the lyrics would continue to remain Gira’s, the vocal duties were now a shared responsibility.
Michael Gira has never been one to back away from uncomfortable topics in his music. As leader of Swans, his songs touch on power and corruption, violence, rape and sex, murder, slavery, and oppression. His lyrics reflect the mire of humanity’s dark side, exposing truths and hypocrisies that far too many of us would rather pretend didn’t exist. He does so with such authenticity and sincerity that it’s as if he has been on both sides, the master and the servant; he has both wielded the sword and suffered its blade. That Gira would eventually shift his focus onto the institution of religion, one of the most corrupt, violent, and oppressive of man’s creations, should be of no surprise.
People fear change– or more often, simply do not like it. With Jarboe’s increased presence in the band, many in Swans’ fanbase showed concern that the hard, explosive, and deafeningly obtuse band they had come to know and love might go soft. Perhaps to belay such ignorance (though I cannot imagine Gira placating anybody), Children of God opens with many of the familiar aspects of early Swans’ songs: an explosive grinding guitar, bombastic, mindcrunching percussion, a tempo that trudges forward, and Gira’s voice, that dark, heavy baritone that sends shivers down the spine. On the surface, “New Mind” is very much in line with older material. But go under the surface a little and you begin to see subtle changes like call-and-response vocal arrangements and discernible lyrics that are not screamed, just directed very intently as when Gira yells, “I am ready to receive the new mind” and the band reinforces the sentiment through repeating the phrase, “I am ready”. Speaking to the corrupted mind, “New Mind” is as shockingly direct as anything that came before, only a bit more refined and focused.
“Beautiful Child”, perhaps the most brutal song on Children of God, begins with the pops and cracks of gunfire before proceeding to become a blood-drenched dirge backdropping a ritual human sacrifice. As Gira sings from the point of view of the one whose duty it is to sacrifice children, his words “The beautiful child, I will kill the child…This is my life, this is my choice, this is my damnation”, the fear is palpable. By the song’s end, Gira is screaming “This is my sacrifice”, indicating not only the obvious sacrifice of the child, but also the sacrifice of his own soul.
Children of God ebbs and flows between the outwardly aggressive and the more reserved, yet equally disturbing. The presence of the acoustic guitar isn’t necessarily new, but it’s prevalence on Children of God certainly is. “Our Love Lies” remains a relatively acoustic song with the addition of percussion, giving it that gothic feel that Nick Cave perfected in his earliest Bad Seeds’ records. “Real Love” takes the Cave-ism to another level, and perhaps hints at a more accessible Gira. “You’re Not Real, Girl” begins with a simple, repeated guitar phrase and an elegant layering of strings. Gira’s hollowed timber and the achingly lonely lyrics leave you feeling as if you are the subject of his bitterness as he closes with “You’re not real, you’re not real.”
The soft acoustic intro to Jarboe’s “In My Garden” is an immediate contrast to the album’s opening barrage. In a manner akin to the Cocteau Twins/Harold Budd project, Jarboe’s voice rises and falls over a steadily coasting guitar/piano coupling but never rises above an ambient state. This sentiment is revisited later in the album with the song “Blackmail”, perhaps the most angelically beautiful moment of the entire record, featuring Jarboe’s achingly haunting vocals over a simple piano. In contrast to those delicate, almost gossamer arrangements, “Blood and Honey” uses Jarboe’s lower register. Arranged with chamber bells, minimal percussion, a darkly hollow echo, and Jarboe singing lyrics like “I found you lying where I drowned you” and “Our blood will flow black in the dirt and a black rose will grow where we laid”, this song could provide the soundtrack to the film What Dreams May Come if Robin Williams was played by Diamanda Galas.
Jarboe is not quite the yin to Gira’s yang as she doesn’t necessarily provide balance. Many of her performances act as foil to Gira’s abrasive aggression, helping to elevate the overall message and its delivery. With Children of God, Swans completed the turn towards a new phase in the band’s development. A key album in the band’s career, just as Holy Money hinted at the band’s near future, Children of God would be the launch point towards more complex, adventurous, and ambitious endeavors.