Young God Records · October 25, 2019
Swans have been at the forefront of experimental music for a long time, largely due to the ability of Michael Gira, founder and lone continuous member, to effortlessly evolve the band’s sound. What began as a revolutionary-yet-incoherent wall of monotonous sludge on Swans’ 1983 debut Filth soon developed into melodious, folk-inspired gothic rock with their 1991 release White Light from the Mouth of Infinity. This initial evolution would see its end with a turn to atmospheric post-rock in 1996’s Soundtracks for the Blind. After the release of the acclaimed live album, Swans are Dead, Swans went silent for over ten years. Gira maintained his presence in the music scene under the moniker “Angels of Light” during this time, but his sound in this project was focused primarily on melancholic folk.
The year is 2010. It has been nearly 15 years since the release of Swans’ Soundtracks for the Blind, an album now considered by many to be one of the greatest albums of all time. Michael Gira is 56 years old, and it’s pretty safe to say that the experimental trip that was once Swans is effectively defunct. Suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere, Gira returns to the Swans name, and in the next six years, Swans release a trio of two-hour-long atmospheric experiences: The Seer, To Be Kind, and The Glowing Man. It’s been 30 years since the founding of Swans, and Gira’s done it once, or in this case thrice, again.
Now it’s 2019. Gira is 65 years old and has been teasing a new album that claims to be the beginning of yet another incarnation of the band. Swans’ fifteenth album, leaving meaning., is proof that Gira isn’t planning on going anywhere. leaving meaning. might be the most accessible Swans album to date, and serves as a culmination of many of Gira’s sounds of yesteryear. With a runtime of 93 minutes, the album preserves the atmospheric post-rock monotony heard in the acclaimed “trilogy” it succeeds and combines it with the gothic-folk sound of White Light from the Mouth of Infinity.
leaving meaning.’s retrogradation of style may come off as antithetical to Swans’ reputation for evolution, but it is this very return to older ideas that distinguishes the album as the beginning of a new era for the band. Gira has dabbled in a wide variety of genres throughout his 40-year-long musical career and uses this album as an opportunity to show us what he has learned.
Songs such as “The Hanging Man” and “Some New Things” feature a repetitive and rhythmically-dominated sound reminiscent of tracks like “Screen Shot” on To Be Kind. Meanwhile, songs such as “It’s Coming It’s Real” help paint an ethereal, lush wall of sound not yet heard before by Gira. This rich, ominous beauty can also be seen in “The Nub,” a song featuring lead vocals by Baby Dee and complemented by instrumentation from experimental jazz group, The Necks.
The album reaches its peak at its end, with its four last songs featuring more easily-digestible song lengths and traditional song structures. Together, these songs are able to quickly summarize the album itself, as well as the various sounds of Swans’ late-career. This begins with the aforementioned “It’s Coming It’s Real,” and continues as “Some New Things,” followed by “What is This?,” a particularly upbeat song relative to the entirety of Swans catalog, featuring a clear melody complemented by the jingling of bells and chimes. This positivity is quickly juxtaposed with the ominous echoing ambience that is the concluding track of the album, “My Phantom Limb.”
Song placement is perhaps the most notable decision worthy of criticism. While the second half of the album flows quite nicely, the first half of the album features the deranged 11-minute-long moan-fest “The Hanging Man” sandwiched between the folk-inspired and orchestrally-backed “Annaline” and “Amnesia.” Swans have always had a spotty reputation in terms of properly placing and transitioning their songs. Hell, songs such as “Big Strong Boss” off Filth abruptly cut out instead of bothering to fade or end at all. Regardless, with leaving meaning. feeling like Swans’ most beautiful album to date, questionable transitions between songs damages an otherwise seamlessly immersive flow.
leaving meaning. seems to show Swans at their most mature. It combines new ideas with everything Gira has learned over 40 years of experimentation; the album may feature a more relaxed and less-risky sound than what has been seen in some of Swans’ prior releases, but its relatively-approachable length and beautifully off-putting sound make for an enlightening experience that leaves the listener looking forward to what will come next.