M. Gira | Live | Review
THE PORTLAND MERCURY | JULIANNE SHEPHERD
The cowboy of death - M. Gira's Excuisite GloomI didn't expect a solo M.Gira to leave such a lasting impression. But after his mostly acoustic performance at the Beyond The Pale Festival in San Francisco earlier this year, and despite the presence of such musical divinity as Neurosis, Zoviet:France, and Shellac, it is Gira's image that still burns in my heart and mind.
He towered out onto the stage, tall and gauntly chiseled and wearing a huge Stetson. His skin was white too, and his pale hair and eyebrows glimmered under the stage lights. He looked like a giant ghost cowboy. His presence was enormous, his deep baritone voice smooth as chocolate. When drunks at the back of the venue chattered vapidly during Gira's set, he remained composed, and instead of throwing the passive glares that are typical of the frustrated musician, he coolly addressed the yammerers: "Do you have something to say?" He wasn't confrontational about it; he said it with a wry grace, and when he received no response, he shrugged his shoulders and continued playing.
Of course, it was M.Gira's music that was most impressive; if he sang about it, he could slice razors into your skin and make you believe it was an act of love. His sophisticated, Marlboro-man yawl invokes the gentlest and most rugged elements of Hank Williams, Leonard Cohen, and Johnny Cash. But he's a little more macabre than that, a little darker; maybe a little sweeter too. The profound leader of The Angels of Light and former member of the seminal yet still underrated Swans, M.Gira's newest records further solidify his place in the venerable canon of deep and dark male songwriters. His lyrics are full of devastating imagery, and when he sings them in his deepest voice, they resonate with honesty: "So follow me down/I am weeping and torn/Put your dirty white hands inside meâ€¦The red sea is raging/with my coughing and spitting/My love is bitter sulfur burning."
These are the words of a brooding man, and How I Loved You, which is a record of love songs, has a lot of similarly grim sentiment. The songs appear to form a connection between love and horribleness. But Gira says, "Well, naturally love can be horrible, but I don't really see that many of the songs veer that way. They're not sappy, to be sure. I hope they portray an essential sentiment in some way - whether it be violent, mournful, lustful, tender, or ecstatic. All these emotions seem to fit in a "love affair" usually, at some point."
After writing songs in some form or another for over twenty years, Gira's stride is honed and articulate. His songs with Angels of Light, full of beautifully simple guitar, lap steel, quiet drumming, and the centerpiece of his grounding voice, are rooted in the very human elements he sings about - lust, tenderness, violence - and seem to come from his well-explored font of emotion. Yet there's something that's very down-to-earth and poised about his music, and an aspect of that is very literary, as well. But Gira says, that after writing songs for so long, that he has "no ability to control (the songwriting) process anymoreâ€¦I'm not capable of using that kind of (literary) reference system when I'm writing. These days, I just sit still and wait for words to appear in my mind. It's a lengthy process, believe me. I give up trying to manage the thing," he says.
"I definitely don't set out trying to 'reach people' " he continues, when I ask the inevitable "What drives you" question. "They have their own business and I have mine. Usually two wildly different agendas! I just make something happen, because if I don't, why then, I'd be faced with the awful prospect of looking at myself. Not that I'm a bad guy; I just like to avoid the tedium of introspection."
It's doubtable that Gira even has the time to avoid introspection; after disbanding the Swans' 15 year career in 1997, he's released two solo albums and two records with Angels of Light. In addition, he runs his own records label, Young God Records (www.younggodrecords.com), and has produced albums from such groundbreaking artists as U.S. Maple, Flux Information Sciences, Ulan Bator, and Larsen. He's the sort of man whose very posture demands respect; someone who should be proud of his career and the beautiful art he's made. "I've made many mistakes," he says "but have always challenged my own preconceptions, and by extension, I guess, those of others (assuming they're interested)."