Can the canny bring on the uncanny? Swans’ re-emergence as a fan-funded project has the kind of unspoken irony that’s always been present in Michael Gira’s creations. Gira likes to summon opposites -- when he sings "light," it’s dark. When he makes a plea to God, a savior seems absent. When he sings about a child, it’s a stand in for his own angst with maturity. When he sing about the mouth, you can’t help thinking about other openings.
Originally, Swans weren’t looking for fans. The band’s earliest work, confined to slow beatdowns, was expressly designed to ward off listeners, but emerging from the performance spaces of 1980s New York City, it was a product of the exact place and time and people who would be willing to tolerate something that wasn’t rock per se, but had power. Like a protagonist in a Swans track, the harder Gira punished, the closer the audience got. By the end of the ‘80s, with punishment an expectation, Swans moved toward the acoustic, and sometimes toward the conventional, though negativity usually shined through the shimmers.
Both the performers in Swans and their audience were looking for something pure, independent of even the downtown art and international industrial scene that were kin. Missteps and odd retreats and flirting with self-parody have been part of the process. A cover of "Love Will Tear Us Apart" seemed superfluous from a band that took Joy Division’s bad moods as the starting point. By the ‘90s, the temptations of the alt-rock boom came into play; the "Celebrity Lifestyle" single seemed an awful lot like a Kim Gordon outtake, playing catchup with peers who’d scratched the mainstream. So much for pushing past frontiers.
Gira is Swans, but Swans is always a band, too, a product of collaborators who round out Gira’s impulses and mirror-gazing. During the 12 years that Gira shelved the project, their influence flowered; metal and folk artists increasingly adopted his strategies of creating suspense while locked into unchanging musical figures, building the mood with gradual shifts in tone and sudden shocks of volume. In forms where virtuosity is expected, Swans showed the virtue of surrendering to simplicity, and the otherworldliness that comes when there are no chords to change or solos to examine.
In deciding to re-explore that intensity, once again he’s chosen a good place and time -- the place being Internet, for fund raising, and the time being the cusp of old age. Money and powerlessness, two of his longstanding anxieties, have switched places. He can sell handmade CDs of live shows and demos to superfans, getting the money in order before recording the next Swans album. He also knows that meting out endurance-testing performances is going to get harder in the future, and he’s focused the ideas behind the band. He’s also lifting his skirts. By talking during the demos of how he envisions the fully realized songs, there’s the risk telling too much, babbling about dreams, demystifying a process where the intended effect is clairvoyance.
The Seer is the second studio album to emerge from this cycle, produced (really beautifully) with cash from We Rose From Your Bed With The Sun In Our Head. Dusted described the first studio album -- -- as "the ultimate M. Gira record," but we spoke too soon. Past misstepping may have been a product of trying to keep an uncommercial band running, and the ego of younger godhood. Gira’s methods are well suited to late-middle age. If he’s not making his most important works of his career, it may well be his best.
The opener, "Lunacy," is as unsure as the record gets; a chorus of singers chanting the title over jangling monochrome hints at a summit before any base camp has been established. The demo version from Rose From Your Bed has less to prove. But contrasting the acoustic solo version with the cast-of-dozens studio work shows how freely Gira turns his ideas over to the cast he assembles. The bombast of the first half of the track is too much, but the emptied-out coda, where the chant turns to "your childhood is over" ties it together. The obvious hysterics are done.
Sure enough, the two hours of sound is divided among three long tracks that know exactly what to do with their exploded structure. They’re buttressed by shorter, solid songs that feel like trips back to the real world, even if they’d be eerie standing on their own. There’s a lot of ringing sounds -- glockenspiel, church bells, dulcimer. The title track, the longest, is as disorienting as anything from Cop. It’s made all the more disorienting by the chimes and harmonica that work their way into the bleached-bone landscape, kind tones knitted into the rumble. The final minutes find the slogging tempo coiling up and Gira’s spitting out feline syllables. He doesn’t bellow the way he used to, staying in the higher range of his voice now. It’s more effective in the musical wasteland, less of a cartoon. There’s no question who the big cat is, and he doesn’t need to roar. Yeah, it’s uncanny.
"A Piece of the Sky," another one of the anchor songs, is new territory. In demo, Gira mentioned his intention to style it like a ballad from Neil Young. In execution it finds a groove not unlike Lindstrom’s Italo variations, gliding and building, but never providing explosion or release. Lyrics arrive during the final minutes of the track, the sort of grand declarations that take a lifetime of balancing narcissism and wonder to pull off. Fragments like "In petroleum blooms / there’s a floating slice of moon" cram dense ideas into a confined space, bringing the song to climax without resorting to a crescendo. Compared to the demo, it’s transformed in the hands of the studio ensemble, far from its rock ballad conception, and like much of The Seer, it seems destined for further changes in concert.
Some of Gira’s mid-life triumph is in setting up this workflow: reviving the brand name of Swans without watering down the legacy; exposing his creative process without dispelling strangeness; recording songs while they’re still in flux. The Seer comes closer to capturing the hypnosis of live Swans than anything released before, even the live recordings. It feels at one with its intended audience. Swans introduce an emotion they haven’t explored much before: intimacy.
By Ben Donnelly