Prevailing logic is that the sophomore LP is one of the most daunting challenges of a band’s career. After defining a musical voice with one record that might have taken years of prep, a band is expected to either live up to or outdo that record, and in short order. That said, some records are so big, so impactful, so daunting that they more or less reset the odometer, redefining the expectation cycle in much the same way. Over his roughly 30 years making music with Swans, Michael Gira has released a handful of albums that fit this category, moments so big that other albums respond to them (whether consciously on Gira’s behalf or in the cultural narrative) rather than merely follow them.
2012’s outstanding The Seer was one such release, an album so maximalist that its title track alone lasted longer than many albums, the entirety of the thing about as long as American History X and comparably curb-stompingly brutal. If Gira and Co. were at all interested in “following” their last LP, To Be Kind would either wind up an album that attempted to reach its predecessor’s epic, cathartic heights or an album that struck out in a new, more fragile direction. Luckily, To Be Kind doesn’t feel a need to fit this false narrative, instead burrowing deeper into the previous album’s intensity, but with an ice pick rather than a sledgehammer.
Though that tool-based distinction would seem to deny the fact that Gira has accumulated a massive crowd of collaborates (which, it’d feel almost foolish to omit considering the hammer note includes a dude named Thor whose job it is to smash at large pieces of metal). That group grows, after this album, to include two Annies (legendary avant performer Little Annie and Annie “St. Vincent” Clark), producer John Congleton, and others, yet the group never overpowers the existential questioning at the core of the storm: Gira’s mantric persona.
Swans’ music scrapes away to expose the bone, allowing Gira’s seemingly simplistic mantras direct access to the blood stream. While the entirety of the album felt like an unscalable mountain range, the title track from The Seer was the Everest; on To Be Kind, “Bring the Sun”/”Toussaint L’Ouverture” tops it by about two minutes of smoldering menace. On the particularly gnarly “Oxygen”, a compulsive riff chisels its way into the brain, over and over, a bridge chant asking to “break my bones,” asking later to be fed, literally woofing, begging for air to keep going. Once the music breaks down the physical reality of listening and existing, any poetry or philosophy can be left behind, replaced by the suddenly poetic insistence of existing. While Gira’s following has expanded far beyond the genre gutter that is drone music, Swans has come to appeal to many of the same touchstones: the moment digs inward, repeating itself until nothing else can exist in the frame, overwhelming the senses to a point that the void must be filled with one’s own mind. But rather than bludgeon with a Merzbow-ian burst (though there are some explosions of guitar noise, to be sure), tracks like “A Little God in My Hands” etch away in acid icicle drips, Gira’s bared-teeth intonations angling hard on the “forever” of the repetitions.
To Be Kind does as much soul exposure lyrically as it does musically, Gira’s simple, howled lines finding the vein incredibly easily. When he yelps, “I need love!” on “Just a Little Boy”, it’s not pitiable or demented; it’s merely the human condition boiled down to its rawest essentials via a broken-blues riff drilled into your skull over 12 minutes. In its droning self-focus, To Be Kind exposes the core, both its own and the listener’s, revealing the visceral building blocks of the song as well as the acts of listening and existing.
In CoS‘s recent interview with the Swans frontman, Gira clarified this sort of hyper-presence: “I certainly don’t want to be in the center or anywhere else except in the music we make.” The music here rides the fine line of feeling immaculately composed and thought out while never indulging in a second of lost focus. Opener “Screen Shot” does its best to deny many prevailing notions of long-term prominence: among the items prefaced with a “no” are sin, speech, and will, the only thing left behind without a negation the icy piano trill, ravenous backing track, and far-distant, Platonic ideal backing vocals. As the track climaxes, Gira sounds to be droning out a first positive: “Love now/ Breathe now/ Here now.” While Swans get a lot of flak for being ominous, scary, dark, what have you, that’s only because they have to tear everything down before the simple reality of the positive can truly stick.
Being here, breathing, loving; these things sound immensely easy and logical. But they only can be achieved once all of the bullshit of everyday life can be cleared away, and this can only be done by breaking it down to reveal the primal, basic reality that allows it to exist in the first place. And, 30 years into the practice, no one does this as well as Michael Gira. He ends the album, quite tellingly, on the album’s title track, repeating the words in an effort to make them real. He wants to be kind, “to be loved,” “to be found in the sound of this room,” for the world to be kind, even if it so often isn’t. He notes that there are “millions and millions of stars,” both in space and in his other’s eyes. The world is so big and unknowable and also so small and unknowable. But the effort is there, amidst all of this uncertainty, to expose the truth, namely that there is love, beauty, and kindness in life despite (and perhaps because of) all this chaos. It sometimes gets lost in the noise, but Swans and Michael Gira use the noise to highlight it.
Essential Tracks: “A Little God in My Hands”, “Oxygen”, and “Bring the Sun”/”Toussaint L’Ouverture”