Swans | Soundtracks for the Blind | Review

The Wire | Biba Kopf

Swans always wrote every song like it was going to be their last

The Swans always wrote every song like it was going to be their last. Even so, the announcement that this is finally it, after some 15 years of honing word, gristle, rhythm and half-melody into some of the finest, most enduring, if (unsurprisingly) somewhat unfairly overlooked works in the whole rock cannon, comes as a shock.

That they've decided to submit to cold economic reality and call it a day rather than face another soul-destroying struggle with media indifference and a diminishing fan base is sensible enough. But what is truly sad about the whole Swans saga coming to an end now is the fact that the music they've been making these past three years is every bit as powerful as the extraordinary, torturously slow, delayed-drop gallows rock with which they announced themselves at the start of the 80's.

These last Swansongs, spread over two CDs (which, appropriately enough, last a lifetime) cap and conclude all the major Swans concerns. At the same time, the instrumental fragments and interludes that punctuate the fully developed pieces hint at all the Swansongs that now will never be, just as they provide tantalizing glimpses of the future directions that Swans motivating force Michael Gira, and longtime partner Jarboe, might take.

The musical scope of Soundtracks is as breathtaking as it is thematically devastating. Along with its immediate predecessor, Die Tür Ist Zu, it constitutes the cement that binds all their preceding music into a single, formidable body of work. The subject of this body of work is the human body itself, and the daily toll taken on both body and soul by pointless, spiritually unsatisfying work. The tape collage "How They Suffer" underlines the physical frailty that permeates the set. It features two tape extracts, one of Jarboe talking to her mother, who is facing the onset of old age; the other is Gira's father talking about the detached retina that has left him blind. The piece is as moving as it is characteristically bleak, in that it offers no solace other than the sense of calm acceptance in the two voices. This admission of more directly autobiographical material is rare for a group which always spoke in the first person to articulate universal, and universally ugly, truths. Perhaps the sense of mortality the piece invokes accelerated The Swans' decision to call it a day.

Where the younger, earlier Swans would subject the body to a vicious pummeling, simulating the cruelty of the exchange values that at base govern our lives, the latter day Swans will pile into a singular riff with the musical intention of providing a release. Monotonal guitar pieces like "The Sound" and "Helpless Child" combine the controlled frenzies of Glenn Branca's guitar orchestras with the emotional intensifications of Austrian blood-artist Herman Nitsch. Where before there seemed no end to The Swans' riffing, now the piling up of overtones finally bursts into the light that illuminates the earlier darkness. But the songs are scarcely less grim. "All Lined Up" is even more devastating in its updated version than it was in its original take on Gira's solo album Drainland. What was once a flesh parade is now a march of the dead—ghost shapes iridescent in the winter light and the narrative intoned in Gira's most weatherbeaten baritone. Time and again, Gira and Jarboe pick at the scabs of their past to see if they can still bleed. Empathy straddles the Greed/Holy Money and Children Of God eras with the narrator cursing a lapse into kindness as a betrayal of weakness, while the last song "The Final Sac", reprises the notion of love, divine or otherwise, as a form of dominance and submission.

Right up to their dying moments The Swans have stayed true to their witheringly bleak vision. It has absolutely no comparison in rock. Indeed, if Gira's obsessive way of putting a small, yet complete vocabulary through endless permutations of the same, seemingly self-loathing theme can be compared to anything it should be to the novels of the late, great Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. Meanwhile, another Austrian, the satirist Karl Kraus, summed up why he and their like keep gnawing at the same corpse: "Because," he said, "I persist in believing there's life in it yet."