Swans | ArticleSweet Depression and Music for the Road It's been a long path over a short distance for Swans, a New York City band who recently relocated to rural Georgia. The artistic coupling of M. Gira (vocals and guitar) and Jarboe (vocals and keyboards) has resulted in the most depressing music of the last 10 years. Which isn't bad. Listeners and critics have plenty of theories about why we like depressing music, usually centering around mutual identification: when you're sad, you want to hear someone who understands how sad you are. I see it more as a negative identification: I may get sad, but damn, I've never felt that bad. People like M. Gira are depressed so that I don't have to be.
When Gira's depressed he sings songs like 1988's "God Damn the Sun" in his rich, unadorned bass voice: "I lost my ambition/So I gained an addiction/To drink and depression/They are mine/My only true friends . . ." But he's not morose: at the core of Swans is grandiose music—sometimes beautiful, sometimes harsh and aggressive, always powerful. Gira refuses to just be depressed: the whole world's fucked by his depression. Murderous or empty gods, the blighted cosmos, drugs, death, and archetypal (fucked-up) families are all included in his utterly negative view.
Swans pound away at a futile world, and have a mostly futile career to show for it. They've bumped around several record companies, and never made it out of their strange ghetto. But at least they've always had friends in high places: Bill Laswell, Nicky Skopelitis, Trilok Gurtu, Shankar, Tony Maimone, Fred Frith, Martin Atkins, and Bill Rieflin have all played on Swans records. That range of musicians suggests the range of Swans' music: no-wave noise and industrial percussion co-exist with Middle-Eastern drones and delicate acoustic guitar. It's a rich brew, resulting in truly lovely music.
They've managed to release at least three records in the last two years: Gira and Jarboe each have solo records coming out on Alternative Tentacles, and 1994's The Great Annihilator (Invisible) shows Swans in fine form. It's mostly about death—by the sun, by a son, by a lover, by alcohol, by one's own hand, whatever. "I just want to thank you/For going insane/Every second that you suffer/Is a loss that you gain"—Gira plays mirror image to hit-making writers of love songs, depicting relationships of hate and betrayal with the same loving care another might devote to sunlight on a lover's hair. If a title like "Celebrity Lifestyle" seems an easy target compared to, say, an absent God or a murderous sun, there are still deftly carried-off couplets, like "She's just a drug addiction/And a self-reflecting image of a narcotized mind," as payoffs.
The World of Skin, listed as openers, are a Swans side-project, focusing more on Jarboe's elegant alto than Gira's deep bass. An old hand at recasting standards like "The Man I Love" and "Cry Me a River" as funeral music, Jarboe makes quietly spooky music, a low-key foil to Swans' high-drama suicide notes.