To Be Kind

(Mute/Young God; 2014)

By Brent Ables | 2 June 2014

To be kind is not to love: love is an essentially violent act. Love won’t keep us together; love isn’t all you need. Love is evil. It’s the enactment of a cosmic imbalance—a forceful selection of one thing at the expense of everything else, overriding reason and justice alike. It is unique, yes, but only as a uniquely creative form of destruction. Remember the dark secret at the heart of Infinite Jest, a book concerned equally with pleasure and violence yet devoid of anything resembling true love: death is a woman, and the woman who kills you is always your next life’s mother. In the book, this message is said to have been conveyed in the lethally nude to an astigmatic lens by one Madame Psychosis, a character whose adopted name is a play on “metempsychosis.” What David Foster Wallace seems to have been suggesting was that the transmigration of souls occurs at the limit where pleasure and death coincide, where everything and nothing split into being. Michael Gira also sees this, because Gira sees it all. With To Be Kind, he has fashioned an echo of that divide. He has given us the last thing anyone expected: a Swans album about love. Little surprise that it might be the least romantic album you will ever hear.

There’s evidence for this on almost every track, but then it’s not like Gira is particularly subtle about it. (There are many words one could use to describe the music of Swans, and none of them are synonyms for “subtle.”) We could start with the suggestively titled “She Loves Us,” or either of the two songs dedicated to specific women. We could look at the multilingual spasms of the behemoth centerpiece of the album, “Bring the Sun / Toussaint L’Ouverture,” which might, remarkably, be even better than the marathon title track of CMG’s 2012 AOTY. But let’s start simply. Slotted immediately after “Bring the Sun” is a kind of interlude called “Some Things We Do,” which, at 5:09, is by far the shortest piece on on the record. It is about—you guessed it—some things we do. We: feel, need, fight, seal, learn, lie, wound, waste, etc. Throughout the course of the song, Gira repeats only two verbs. “We fuck.” “We love.” The latter phrase is repeated ad infinitum at the track’s end, where Gira’s repetitions subtly move farther and farther away from the beat, as if love was the one thing that breaks the never-ending laundry list of shit we collectively do. As if love, that most persistent of human refrains, is also the one that fits least well with the others. A terrestrial, if not cosmic, imbalance.

Big ideas, yes. Big claims. But there is not a band left standing that can rival Swans for ambition in our post-millennial wasteland. Musically and lyrically, on record and in their live performances, they reach farther and dig deeper than anyone else making music today. The Seer alone would have been sufficient proof of this; that they have given us a record every bit The Seer’s equal a mere two years later is almost grotesque. Enough has been said about Swans’ remarkable comeback this decade, and in any case, I’m not the person to say it—the important point here is that To Be Kind is as vital and unsettling as anything they’ve ever done, and displays a mastery of their craft that seems almost automatic at this point.

What is really surprising is how, well, surprising the band continues to be in the fourth decade of their career. What sets Swans apart from a thousand lesser experimental doomsayers is how they never just resort to the obvious tricks for such ostensibly “dark” music: dissonant guitars, heavy distortion, lyrics about horny zombie fetuses or whatever. The effects of their music are achieved through very precise means, always specific to the song—the canned laughter of “Just a Little Boy,” for instance, or the horse that sounds like it’s having its hind legs sawed off in “Bring the Sun / Toussaint L’Ouverture.” And none of Michael Gira’s lines are delivered like any other. When he indulges his inner child—“I’m just a little boy / I need looooooove”—he adopts a creepy-as-fuck infantile squeal that explodes into mockery like your worst high school nightmares. The punishing “Oxygen” is conveyed in the kind of matter-of-fact tone one might expect to hear from a newscaster narrating their own disembowelment. Even when Gira engages in some old-fashioned blood-curdling screams at the end of “Toussaint,” he seems to be communicating something very specific rather than just indulging in volume for the sake of cheap force. What comes across is a balance between enormous, primal power and micromanaged control that will be familiar to anyone who has had the unforgettable experience of seeing Swans live.

This balance is evident nowhere more than in the work of the album’s dominant musical force, Thor Harris. Harris is one of the unsung heroes of the last decade-plus of indie rock, having played with acts from Shearwater and Bill Callahan to Amanda Palmer and Devendra Banhart, but To Be Kind is perhaps his most remarkable showcase. The metronomic consistency and seemingly unlimited endurance he brings to this band are a big part of what makes them so captivating, but Harris is far more than just a timekeeper. On tracks like “Oxygen” and “Screen Shot” the guitars and keyboards seem to pivot around Harris’ complex polyrhythms rather than the other way around. He is endlessly inventive, bringing various bells and gongs into the fray that would be unimaginable in most heavy music. His is a palpably physical presence, the perfect foil for Michael Gira, and it is almost hard to believe that Swans came so far without him.

And yet: this is unmistakably, from first note to last, Gira’s show. Conrad Amenta once described Gira as “a dictator made uncaring by the world he rules over,” and that description will hold true for as long as Swans make music. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that the centerpiece of this record is named for a military genius who led a slave revolt that became a revolution and then proclaimed himself dictator before being deposed by Napoleon. From blood and bondage to a kind of autocratic freedom: the perfect metaphor for Swans’ journey at any stage of its continuing evolution. And yet, although it may lack subtlety, there is no shortage of mystery in Gira’s music. Are his hysterical declarations of “Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité!” sarcastic? Is he suggesting the irony of the slave who ends as ruler? Or could this be a genuine endorsement of these democratic ideals? Whatever Gira has in mind, I doubt it’s that simple. And there is nothing I can say about his unaccountable switch to Spanish for the song’s remaining lyrics, a veritable hauntology of macabre mantras when translated: “Blood of God / Son of God / Love of God / Blood is life / Life is blood / Blood is love / Love is blood.” We here at CMG, we don’t always claim to comprehend. Instead, we bow; we bend; we break. We listen. We devour. We love.