Pitchfork Glowing Man Review

Swans - The Glowing Man
Swans close their current chapter on a subdued but powerful note.

Saby Reyes-Kulkarni

Musical careers rarely end with clean resolutions, which makes sense given that bands usually don’t get to plan their own exits. And even when they do, farewell gestures tend to leave a lingering taste of anticlimax. The Glowing Man, the final album by the current lineup of Swans, marks an exception to this rule, much as Swans have broken pretty much all modern rock norms.

From 1982 to 1997, and then again from 2010 until now, Swans leaderMichael Gira has charted a fiercely uncompromising path. Not unlike King Crimson mastermind Robert Fripp, he has re-invented Swans several times, with new iterations bearing little resemblance to previous ones. Along the way, Swans have drawn from no wave, art-rock, industrial, sludge, drone, folk, and more while flagrantly disregarding genre boundaries. Gira built Swans by subjecting audiences to unrelenting torrents of abrasion, but latter-day Swans tunes are built like spiderwebs: delicate enough to blow on, yet surprisingly durable against wind and rain, elegant but dotted with gruesome shapes in a complex, shifting geometry. Who knows what they will become next; Gira says he plans to continue under the Swans name “with a revolving cast of collaborators” and with far less emphasis on touring.

On The Glowing Man, for almost two hours, Swans say again with whispers what they once roared. However, while their previous albums The Seer and To Be Kind merged groove, intensity and riffs into a new form of orchestral rock, The Glowing Man is more slight, constantly on the verge of fading into the ether. Gira and co. spend much of the album suspended in a kind of ambient trance, scarcely growing louder even as their parts grow denser and hint at more emotional volatility. The sum is deceptively sedate but far from an easy listen—at times, it’s akin to sitting next to a still pool and watching for ripples on the surface.

On this album (as in real life), love grows like an ivy that entwines with suffering. On “When Will I Return?,” for example, Gira's spouse Jennifer sings about her assault experience: “His hands are on my throat/My key is in his eye/I’m splayed here on some curb/Shards of glass—a starry night.” Gira wrote the song well before assault allegations against him surfaced earlier this year, but hearing it in the episode's wake amplifies the song's unsettling effect and provokes a slew of difficult questions. On the 25-minute “Cloud of Unknowing,” he denounces a “Jesus feeler, zombie sucker, zombie healer, monster eater,” a post-traumatic residue lingering in the air like a static charge. About five minutes in, a Mellotron bubbles up courtesy of regular collaborator Bill Rieflin as droning strings bob, weave, and disappear like firefly lights. The resemblance to Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter” is uncanny but passing. (Rieflin, a onetime drummer for Nine Inch Nails and King Crimson, plays multiple instruments on the record, including bastardized jazz piano on the opening track “Cloud of Forgetting.”)

Likewise Gira’s vocals on “Unknowing” vaguely recall an Arabic call to prayer while percussionist Thor Harris’ church bells ring in panic and the noise-improvisational cellist Okkyung Lee contributes a sharp solo with anxious overtones. In her own career, Lee has arguably done for the cello what Jimi Hendrix did for the guitar, turning unexpected sound patterns into graceful forms we can understand. It’s a testament to how flexible Swans have become that a force of nature like Lee simply blends into the music rather than disrupting it.

When Gira announced this Swans incarnation would end, he referred to “LOVE” (in all caps) as his reason for working with the musicians on The Glowing Man. Of course, Gira was not talking about the over-sweetened form we often get in pop music. The love in his music is as terrible as it is beautiful, a wrenching act of spiritual determination. Swans make this sound effortless, though, in a fitting end to a remarkable chapter of their career.