Swans | Soundtracks for the Blind | Review

Detroit Metro Times | Thom Jurek

* * * * * stars

With the issue of Soundtracks For The Blind, their 15th album in as many years (along 12"s and side projects), Swans are calling it quits. There's one final tour planned and then the band enters the palace of rock and roll memory.

For me, this is difficult, because on a pop scene filled with transience and trend, Swans have always been present if not always visible, ever looking forward. They are, in both ambition and excess, a true voice of resistance to an "alternative" music that consumed its own corrupted flesh in the mid-1980s.

I won't spend time talking about the legion of bands they influenced—most of whom have gained in stature and economic status as a result of Swans' renegade aesthetic and unbreakable spirit—it leaves too bitter a taste in my mouth. And though I know both Gira and Jarboe are far too driven to give up working—there are books, films and duo and solo recordings planned—I will miss the persona that was so singularly Swans.

As a title, "Soundtracks for the Blind" is filled with irony. Never have Swans been so focused on their particular strengths as they are on this double CD. As a final statement, it shows that Swans are exiting at the very top of their game, not as a broken, empty shell that merely references the finer moments of yesteryear.

Visually, this set is a work of art. A cardboard digipak with two sparely designed discs of copper and silver and a gorgeous lyric sheet inserted in an inside pocket with a silkscreen of a human boneyard on the flipside. The design has everything to do with the music; it's ambiguous, austere, imposing; it stands out and invites you in, via a complex, devastating seduction.

Musically, "Soundtracks For The Blind" consists of sounds compiled from many sources: found, appropriated, played, looped and multi-tracked from live shows to hand-held cassette recordings to studio constructions. Gira and Jarboe recruited collaborators such as former American Music Club guitarist Vudi, Iggy Pop drummer Larry Mullins, Joe Goldring and Kris Force, and edited in contributions from Al Kizys, Norman Westberg, Clinton Steele and Larry Lame (these last four, former Swans members). All the music was taken apart, collaged, spindled, manipulated, remixed and remodeled by Gira and engineer Chris Griffin.

More often than not, guitars bleed into keyboards and unidentifiable sounds, samples melt into drum loops, voices slip in and out of a thick, warm, sleepy mix and words become narrations by which the music changes direction, disappears and re-emerges transformed. Where single acoustic guitars appear, stringed instruments and unidentifiable sounds displace them and relegate them to the periphery, opening up a space for the singer to shift meanings even further afield.

Almost all individual traces (except for vocals) are obscured, not to render them beyond recognition necessarily, but in order to create an original (who can say that in pop anymore?), hypnotic, genreless whole, that breeds and reflects sadness, loneliness, isolation, alienation, resignation, tragedy and an eros born of out need, not want.

The twin notions of ambiguity and blur serve Swans well; they create the emotional axis on which "Soundtracks For The Blind" turns. Where one tracks begins, another ends, both thematically and contextually. The segues fold one emotion and the trace of its passage into another; that is then grafted as a new shadow onto the next theme. It's obvious that "Soundtracks For The Blind" was conceived as a continuous whole.

In years past, Swans were deservedly known for their aggression and brutality. These schema have been replaced by an ominous softness, an almost a malevolent tenderness expressed in whispers and washes. No longer do rage and domination battle with repulsion and submission for dominance in their sound—though the threat is ever-present. Individually, these territories have been eclipsed by a new, wider space, in which they are all contained: abjection.

It is from the Mark of Cain that Gira and Jarboe speak, it is in this ravaged, hallowed ground from which a new sonic cartography has been hewn, and a new grammar of the iniquitous been birthed. Here Neitszche, Baudelaire and Mary Magdalene walk with Bataille, Genet and Joan of Arc.

On "Red Velvet Corridor," the opening track, a slowly evolving theme of three notes breathes in the mix before what sounds like strings and a vocal drone placidly enter the fray. A lone feedback well comes from the ether and paints it momentarily.

The theme never stops, it is simple, melodic, beautiful; but even here, its sweetness colors a feeling of something sorrowful. It's elegiac, it moves the listener to the very aesthetic space Swans' discourse come from. And as it fades, one is not quite prepared for the instrumental that follows, "I Was A Prisoner In Your Skull."

A small, minimal phrase slips out into the fore only to be overshadowed by groaning voices, pounding drums and strange, disorienting spoken words. The voice, neither Gira or Jarboe, proclaims in a pathetic manner his superiority to an unidentified lesser who depends on him. Airy keyboards repetitively play throughout, highlighting the speaker's increasingly twisted confession and accusations.

When the first actual "song" on the record appears, "Helpless Child," electric and acoustic guitars along with subtle keyboards delicately frame the narrative Gira is about to iterate. And in his controlled delivery, we can hear the cracks in his protagonist's psyche; his heart is bursting with longing and regret. This is the articulation of what is to come over the next two hours, full of warped soul and bent love, cruelty and atrocity: "Now you be the mother/and I'll be your fool/I'll hide myself deep inside your crimson pool. The muddy water runs/Beneath your folds/You won't let me breathe, you won't let me go. Now you be the stranger/and I'll be the white-skinned son/You'll blacken my innocence, with sugar and opium./The children were suffocating down in your damp cave/And you were the mother, and I was the sleeping slave/Protect me from violence, hold me in your cool lips/You drug me with kindness, I can pretend I exist/Now you be the only child/I'll suck on your breast/You'll feed me with gasoline, I'll burn my name in your head."

Here, redemption is a matter for the past to reconcile, the cupboard is empty and so is the bed. What is longed for is wholly absent and growing ever fainter as memory.

This is what Swans do, they read the unmentionable and mirror it back to us in a language that is enough for us to understand and from so far outside our everyday experience it borders on the sacred. What Swans seem to be saying in these songs is that these elements really are part of our lives.

Things do get somewhat aggressive on "Yum-Yab Killers," a live track where Jarboe chants over a drum intense mix laden with woolly guitars: "I said come here, dear, you know what I'll do/I'll make you my mirror of the things that I chew." Alternately, she spits the words or they drip from her mouth like poisoned honey.

From primal scream to funereal modal excess to ambient noir, sound forms to near-heraldic balladry, Swans have looked into the mouth of the vast unknown and given it a name, and in the process they've named themselves. They've raided the musical past for forgotten treasures—their own and others—and have made use of them in a new way.

(It is interesting to note their appropriation of Pink Floyd's "One Of These Days" on "The Sound." Swans turn a once merely disturbing song by the former band into something so ominous, future-phobic and frightening, getting to the end of its 13 minutes is an experience in tension).

The copper disc is only a predictable extension of disc one in that nothing is ever done predictably, though everything has a consistent "feel." Each note, beat and cluster, is in a constant state of metamorphosis.

"Soundtracks For The Blind" breaks itself open and reveals itself slowly. There are epiphanies as well as black holes to be found, sometimes within the same track.

In all, "Soundtracks For The Blind" is almost unbearably beautiful. In its lush appearance it is seductive; in its loss, unmerciful; in its harrowing vision, it never flinches from horror; in its sheer volume and musical landscape, it is exhaustive without bankrupting itself creatively.

On "Soundtracks For The Blind" Swans ask questions that most of us don't want to be asked, let alone answer. One of the most sexually charged and emotionally honest recordings I have ever heard, its expressions of lust and shame allow us to live inside it and take comfort in its excesses.

This is a rare thing in music, that a document, particularly a final one, can encompass the darkness of the entire world in one place. Like I said, I am having a tough time accepting the fact that Swans won't be around anymore. God knows we need their courage and flawed grace more than ever.