My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky

(Young God; 2010)

By Joel Elliott | 29 September 2010

I don’t condone this shit. I won’t recommend it to your friends, I’m not going to ‘like’ it on Facebook, I won’t plug it in to Pandora Radio to find similar bands that I might enjoy because the only legitimate response would be a massive black hole. This band’s worldview is despicable, and I won’t even offer the excuse that they offer a mirror to the dark side of humanity, because any amount of self-awareness is consumed by a blanket of delusion. This is the same band (or rather the same Michael Gira, having managed to ward off the death march for a dozen or so years with Angels of Light) that once devoted a song to the destructive force of the sun (“I Am the Sun”). And My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky opens with a song that ends with the line “Long may his world never begin,” and reaches its climax with a song called “Eden Prison.” This is a stillborn child of a band, one that sees time solely in terms of decay, which I hasten to reiterate is the official position of neither myself nor Cokemachineglow as a whole. Heidegger had “care” and Sartre had “choice,” neither of which is given even a brief candle here. Out of all sense of moral responsibility I officially recommend that you go listen to that Sufjan Stevens album that just leaked.

There are two things binding me to this band, and one of them is my own history. When I was nineteen I wound up in a hospital following the closest I’ve ever come to a complete collapse. My friend thought I’d come to visit him, but then saw that I wasn’t wearing shoes. We played chess and smoked cigarettes and often were deceived that the other had some kind of objective knowledge of his own suffering. And he played me Soundtracks for the Blind (1996), the heretofore final Swans album. For my still rather limited experience with experimental music it seemed like Godspeed You! Black Emperor but with all the hope and struggle turned inside out: completely void of nostalgia (which at that point had always coloured my hopelessly naive, pseudo-existential sense of identity), it felt like being imprisoned by the most banal scenarios. The album didn’t even allow anything as easy as catharsis, suggesting, with its intrusions of repetitive drones/disembodied voices and samples of bored sex workers and morose patients, something far worse: vacancy, indifference even. Time went on and I somehow figured out how to compartmentalize these kinds of emotions, but Soundtracks could still be counted on whenever I was ready to feel miserable for 140 minutes.

The other factor is something related to the band’s own career trajectory. Early records like Filth (1983) and Cop (1984) arguably represent the most distilled aggression you can find anywhere on tape (and probably the only logical conclusion of the no-wave movement). They’re frightening at first, but numbing as they settle in, unable to fully transcend their own homogeneity. As a consequence, the later inclusion of ethereal dirges—and particularly with the addition of Jarboe as a second vocalist—seems less like a compromise and more like a way of keeping the assault effective across the length of an LP. This tactic was most heavily pronounced on Children of God (1987), where Jarboe’s empyrean delicacy seemed to make the violent plummets to Earth that much more punishing.

Through the late period of their career, Swans got less dramatic but ultimately more devastating. What made The Great Annihilator (1995) scary was not that the lyrics were bleak, which they always had been, but that somehow the band had gained a kind of seductive power: no longer especially difficult to listen to, the experience was like sucking on the sweetest poisoned grapes. While a chump like Trent Reznor sings “There is no you / There is only me,” Gira asks “Where does a body end?” Darkness has a way of easily sliding into narcissism, but Swans have a way of implicating everyone in their own warped, hermetic vision. It’s no wonder a lot of words like “purity” get thrown around by the band’s followers: there seems to be no filter between the morsel of a thought and its actualization in a song, no separation between musician and listener. Their music is about the black expanse of possibility.

If My Father doesn’t quite achieve the perfection (what else can you call it?) of their last albums, it nevertheless takes up where they left off. After all, why did Gira renew the Swans moniker at this point, after going so far as naming a late live compilation Swans Are Dead (1998)? There’s no Jarboe here, and given the revolving-door cast of Angels of Light, he could have easily continued recording under that name. On his website, Gira describes playing live and “riding waves of sound,” and “a force of simultaneous self negation and rebirth,” and that seems to be about as close a description of the turning-point represented by this record as anything. It seems like Gira has been suddenly re-possessed by something he either tried to avoid or was unable to achieve in the last fourteen years. You could almost imagine closer “Little Mouth” as a stand-out track on any of the Angels of Light albums, and yet the violence which precedes it transforms the track from the kind of rustic weariness projected on his all-acoustic albums into complete resignation. When he sings “Please open my mind / And take what’s left,” you actually believe him. Self negation and rebirth, indeed.

The savage cruelty of some of the lyrics could have been funny in other circumstances, but humour is more of a defense in this context than anything else. “Reeling the Liars In” marries lyrics of appalling butchery with warm acoustic harmonies and desert slide guitar, but somehow the contrast is frightening in its cold resolve rather than comical. When it becomes clear at the end the “liar” is himself, the song winds up positioning Gira as a kind of pathetic Messianic farce, averting self-parody by absorbing it. They push the limit even further with “You Fucking People Make Me Sick,” a suggestion that Gira never really bought the innocent weird uncle shtick that Devendra Banhart projects on himself. As Banhart coos “I love you / Now give me what is mine,” he’s echoed by Gira’s own three year old daughter, but what seems like an empty provocation becomes genuinely disturbing when the bottom falls out and the track descends into erratic low-end piano, trumpets that sound like hornets and a vague sensation of being on an aircraft carrier.

In between are a couple of tracks of classic Swans violence. “My Birth” is one of the most dizzying, visceral tracks in the band’s history. With its reeling drums and Stooges slide, it superficially resembles funner post-punk bands like the Birthday Party (who themselves modeled the style on the kind of hedonistic blues of Howlin’ Wolf), but in its constant repetition of the same riff it gains a kind of apocalyptic militancy that Nick Cave always seemed too intoxicated for. Here Gira is drunk only on the force of the band behind him. Likewise, “Eden Prison” spends its entire middle-half throwing up its own insides over and over again. Swans always understood better than most post-punk bands that the crushing, wall-of-sound repetition pioneered by Glenn Branca could be taken to its logical, nihilistic extreme in rock-n-roll.

And thus I find myself in the rather contentious position of giving an ostensibly glowing review to an album that, in many ways, I have no wish to revisit. As a critic, and even just a general fan of music, I have to agree to suspend to some degree my own preconceptions and gauge my appreciation based on an instinctive, emotional level, something I think Michael Gira understands incredibly well. I think a lot of non-critics assume this suspension of judgment involves admiring or appreciating an artist despite a lack of personal investment, but the older I get the more I realize it should be the opposite. I refuse to buy into this bleak perspective, but for 44 minutes I can be entirely convinced. Like I said, you learn to compartmentalize.