Pitchfork "To Be Kind": Best New Music

Swans were hardly the first 1980s underground-rock fixtures to resurface in the new millennium, and they’re not the only ones who've resisted the nostalgic trappings of reunion tours to make a respectable showing as a rebooted recording act. But they are the rare band of their vintage who seem less concerned with living up to or building upon a past legacy than establishing a completely different one. In retrospect, the 14 years that elapsed between 1996’sSoundtracks for the Blind and 2010’s My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky were less a break-up-induced hiatus than a gestation period. The bigger, brawnier Swans that Michael Gira has assembled in its wake (complete with a strapping, bare-chested gong-smasher named Thor) are beholden neither to the primordial, industrialized sludge of the band’s infamous ’80s catalogue nor the post-goth serenity of their ’90s work. Instead, they’ve perfected a new means of transforming grostequerie into grandeur and vice versa.

With 2012’s astonishingly colossal The Seer, Swans pulled off the unlikeliest of coups: A record that, over its six sides and two-hour-plus running time, was seemingly designed to test the commitment of the band’s most ardent followers yet, amazingly, expanded their audience to an unprecedented degree. (This summer, Swans are even playing the odd free festival datein outdoor public squares, which could conceivably earn them a few new fans in the grandparents-and-strollers demographic.) But while Swans have always been the last band to pander to audience expectations, Gira nonetheless seems aware that anticipation for a new Swans album has arguably never been greater. And so he’s responded in the best way possible: by producing a record that, in structure and scale, is every bit The Seer’s equal, yet possessed by a peculiar energy and spirit that proves all the more alluring in its dark majesty.

The relationship between the two albums can essentially be gauged by their respective album covers. Though there’s a similarity in composition, To Be Kind’s artwork trades The Seer’s dark shadows for a bright mustard tone, and the central feral-dog figure for cute baby faces (as rendered in a series of six by L.A. painter Bob Biggs), suggesting a more approachable ethos at play. But as any new parent can tell you, an infant is as volatile and destructive a creature as the wildest of field animals and, likewise, the John Congleton-produced To Be Kind boasts a more focused attack—with a preminum on taut, throbbing grooves and blackened blues—that initially tricks you into thinking it's more accessible than its predecessor. (Hey, there's even a song named in honour of Kirsten Dunst.) Yet it’s ultimately accessible in the same way a prison gate is accessible—getting in is relatively easy; getting out unscathed is an entirely different story. Upon hearing the introductory Cajun-funk strut of “A Little God in My Hands”, I initially worried that Swans were crossing over into the sort of campy, Southern-fried creepiness you’d hear on the soundtrack to an episode of "True Blood". But after that destabilizing blast of brass and synapse-frying synth beam appears out of nowhere at the 90 second mark, “A Little God in My Hands” carries on as if infected by a virus; it tries to keep its cool, but the once-sprightly rhythmic bounce is now ridden with a nervous tension, while the encroaching chorus of dead-eyed female voices transform the song into a mutant-zombie version of its former self. On To Be Kind, this is what constitutes a lead single.

Close observers of Swans will notice that seven of the 10 songs here were previewed in some form on last year’s limited-edition concert album/demos collection Not Here/Not Now(whose sales funded the new album’s production). But most have since been subjected to dramatic embellishment or rearrangement. Not Here/Not Now’s tense, acoustic-strummed closing sketch “Screen Shot” has been recast as To Be Kind’s louche, slow-boiling “Yoo Doo Right”-styled opener and, in the process, illuminates the great contradiction at the core of the 21st-century Swans sound: as their sonic vocabulary has grown more elaborate and texturally detailed, Gira’s sense of melody has turned all the more minimalist and mantric. Thirty years ago on the deadpan dirge, “Job”, Gira sang from the perspective of the world’s most bored axe murderer (“Cut off the arms/ Cut off the legs/ Cut off the head/ Get rid of the body”) as a metaphor for soul-destroying, day-to-day workplace drudgery; on “Screen Shot,” he more eagerly sings of a different sort of dismemberment  (“No touch/ No loss/ No hands/ No sin”), of purging urges—and the body parts used to indulge them—as way to achieve a state of spiritual purity.

The ensuing songs on To Be Kind present variations on this theme—of unleashing an outsized sound to find an inner peace, and reclaiming one's innocence by way of insolence. But, of course, this being a Swans record, salvation never comes easy. When, amid the “Dirt”-covered funereal march of “I’m Just a Little Boy” Gira pleads, “I need loooooooooooove,” he’s answered by a Greek chorus of devious, derisive laughter. (Of all the terriblehumiliating experiences detailed in Swans songs over the years, that moment just might count as the cruelest.) And if the 34-minute centerpiece “Bring the Sun”/“Toussaint L’Ouverture” initially summons our planet’s primary life-source with all the trance-inducing elation and desperation of a remote-island pagan sect praying to their gods for a bountiful harvest, its more sinister second act—wherein Gira maniacally howls the name of the titular 18th-century Haitian revolutionary while drowning in a swamp of dub spewage—transforms the track into an after-hours seance gone wrong.

As it plays out, To Be Kind starts to resemble a cult procession unto itself, a mesmerizing spectacle of an omnipotent band whose sound continues to expand in scope and ranks swell in size. Much like The SeerTo Be Kind sees a formidable and evermore prominent coterie of female vocalists—from the insurgent Cold Specks to reigning freak-scene queen St. Vincent to avant-rock veteran Little Annie—falling under Swans’ sway. And rather than provide a calming counterpoint to Gira’s stentorian croon, their voices ultimately serve the album’s hypnotic force. From the teeth-gnashing ferocity of “Oxygen” to the calamitous, battering-rammed climax of “She Loves Us!”, To Be Kind adheres to a policy of transcendence by any means necessary, even if it means repeatedly bashing you in the face with a mallet until you’re seeing stars and colors.

On the hymn-like title-track closer, Gira solemnly repeats the words “to be kind” as both an aspirational self-help slogan and a tacit acknowledgement that, given all the diabolically orchestrated malevolence we’ve been subjected to over the preceding 112 minutes, he hasn’t always done the best job of heeding his own advice. But as the song violently erupts into one final, sustained surge of tectonic-plate-shifting discord, the moment proves to be as affirming as it is unsettling. “People always consider us to be very dour and depressing, but fuck that shit,” Gira told Pitchfork’s Brandon Stosuy in 2012. “The goal is ecstasy.” And what makes To Be Kind so compelling is how that goal seems both fully realized yet forever out of reach at the same time. 

By Stuart Berman