The 405 "To Be Kind" Review
Taken at face value, you probably have to assume that the name Swans was chosen at least as a non-sequitur and likely, more deliberately, as an ironic counterpoint to the racket that Michael Gira's men actually made. How poignant, then, that it would actually come to evince some genuine validity in the band's later years; their 'reactivation' - Gira doesn't like the connotations of the word 'reunion' - has seen them carry themselves with such grace, such elegance, that you wonder why anybody guilty of resurrecting their old outfit purely for financial reasons doesn't simply melt with shame at the mention of Swans' name.
It seems bizarre to put it this way, but The Seer, which ran two hours and, as always, carried an aggressively experimental edge, was probably Swans' most accessible work. It certainly carried their appeal beyond the core fanbase that was delighted to hear news of their return four years ago, and perhaps that's why there isn't too much of an effort to diverge from that basic formula on To Be Kind. Any record on which the eight-minute opening track - in this case, 'Screen Shot' - feels like mere preamble is obviously going to carry with it a certain level of adventurousness, and a visceral lack of respect for the rules, that in turn makes it an essential listen.
Proceedings kick off proper on 'Just a Little Boy (for Chester Burnett)', which features wandering guitar, vocals apparently random in their sporadicity, and infrequent bursts of canned laughter. Probably the great critical injustice, as far as Gira is concerned, is that the obvious genius of his compositions so frequently plays second fiddle, in terms of discussion, to the sense of menace he brings to his recordings, but there's no avoiding the fact that he has the unhinged Nick Cave routine down to a science; he weaves in and out of 'A Little God in My Hands' in threateningly offbeat fashion.
'Bring the Sun/Toussaint L'Ouveture', running just shy of thirty-five minutes, is the real centrepiece; it sounds like a ridiculous comment to pass, but so constant is the sense of drama - the crux of the track involves a chanted vocal over increasingly urgent guitars over similarly persistent drums - that it actually, somehow, feels taut. It isn't difficult to envision that it started off as a studio jam that simply ran away with itself; if anything, it leaves To Be Kind's second act with a little too much to do in terms of matching it.
'Kirsten Supine' sounds stripped-back, but in truth, there's just as much intelligence to its meandering composition as anything else on the record; when the guitars, bubbling with venom, begin to build late on, there's a sense of tantalising dread as you wait for Gira's pointed vocal to return - in the end, of course, it never does, with measured cacophony rounding off the track. 'Oxygen', with its rumbling bass and lively guitar, begins in a manner that hints at repetition; inevitably, though, any sense of actual order begins to crumble by the midpoint, with Gira's turn bringing a new meaning to the word 'improvised'.
I found myself having a serious think about the ramifications of a double album back when Arcade Fire dropped Reflektor last year; perhaps other aspects of the record's rollout coloured my judgement, but I couldn't help but reflect on the genuine arrogance of expecting your listeners to be able to experience ninety minutes of music as an uninterrupted piece of art. Swans, though, have again made a complete mockery of my concerns with an album that, even if I tried to be completely brutal, I probably couldn't trim by more than ten minutes. Incredibly, they're becoming even less safe, even less predictable, as they near pension age; on this evidence, long live Michael Gira.
by Joe Goggins