Swans | Love of Life | ReviewRating: ***** Those of you familiar with White Light from the Mouth of Infinity will recognize the immediate similarity between it and Swans' latest, Love of Life. White Light featured a carrot-wielding bunny in a hazy landscape...Well the bunnies have exploded but if anything, Love of Life is the gentler of the two works.
It's taken Swans a while to find a new sound; they've been in a slump of sorts ever since the despicable Children of God (86 or 87). White Light was promising, but sunk under its own weight, stretching too few ideas over too many long songs; but Love of Life fully realizes what White Light strove for.
After thirty seconds of chaotic noise, the title track explodes, carrying waves of percussion and guitar along with it. An ironic tension is quickly created between the invigorating music and the pallid sentiments of M. Gira. Ultimately, though, this is no longer the man who bludgeoned us with 'Trust Me,' or 'Sex God Sex.' The lyrics are carefully, lovingly constructed; while an earlier Swans line, like "Be strong/Be hard/Resist temptation/Stick your hand in your eye!" was propelled to Wordsworth-like heights by the dynamic music and palpable emotion, Love of Life (the album) contains some of the finest lyrics I've ever heard.
The percussive power of Swans is still evident, but muted, not really noticed unless one looks for it. The most important elements here are the acoustic guitar, and Gira's voice. On 'Her,' Gira intones a pastoral love song which cuts to a girl describing her hopes of forming a band...when her boyfriend gets back from prison. Yeah, the melancholy is still here, but it's born of courage in the face of futility rather than abject despair. Throughout the album, seemingly random snippets of conversation tie everything together. All of the characters introduced appear harmless, but closer inspection reveals the deep sorrow which walks hand in hand with life (or life as Gira, and others, see it).
'Amnesia' comes across bright and cheerful, sounding off the impotence of mankind in today's shallow society. Here the guitars are rhythmic and the voice carries the song, connecting the lyrics with half-formed words. The effect is both inspiring and confusing. 'The Sound of Freedom' and 'God Save America,' closing sides one and two respectively, are undoubtedly the album's highlights. Freedom is a relative term, and here the word is spit out like so much arsenic: "The fire that burns the city/Is the white light in freedom's eye." Like all great people, Gira is confused by life, he doesn't know how to reconcile the glorious heights of love, sex, art, faith, with the depths of arrogance, greed, rape, murder, war, poverty, crime, loneliness (and love, and sex). If the list seems skewed to the dismal, well, our day and age lends itself to the dismal. Gira is also aware of the paradox of mankind's tremendous glory and insignificance. Answers aren't really required here, just questions, and ideas.
'God Save America' quietly mirrors the recent LA riots with its opening lines of "And all across America the poison fires glow/And in the blood of our procreation annihilation grows." The situation seems inevitable. Our raping of the New World to satisfy industry and greed forced a reaction. Capitalism is a great idea but...
There are two important facets to Love of Life. The first is the evolution of Swans as a musical force. If you at all like acoustic songs, or pleasant melodies masking vicious attacks, then this is definitely for you. Love of Life isn't going to toss you into a masochistic circle of self-hatred and self-pity like the Swans of old; instead it appeals to the intellect as well as the viscera. Old Swans had to consume themselves, we can only count ourselves lucky that a Phoenix arose from the ashes.
The second important facet is the emergence of Gira as a lyrical force. Finally he is able to articulate his ideas and feelings both on paper and in music. Don't expect cartoon nihilism or trite sentimentality; expect the mature and questioning cry of loneliness that many feel, but few can fully express.
Okay, okay, but you want to know what the music's like. This is my first review, and it's become apparent why critics search for comparisons, no matter how tenuous. Well, Love of Life sounds like all the best parts of White Light cobbled together. If that doesn't help, imagine Leonard Cohen supported by several drummers, or Ian Curtis without electric guitars: tortured, confused, but also containing the truly beautiful moments that only dimensioned music can.
Two more things. Jarboe sings two tracks which generally mess things up. Her voice is nice, but she sounds positively facile beside Gira, and interrupts the flow of courage and despair. Also, the CD comes with a brilliant bonus track, 'No Cure for the Lonely.'