Pitchfork leaving meaning. Review
Michael Gira reshuffles his famous band’s lineup, inviting collaborators like the Necks and Ben Frost for a record that emphasizes elegiac beauty over raging catharsis.
In 2017, Michael Gira dissolved Swans, putting an end to its most stable configuration in 35 years of the post-punk brutalists’ on-again, off-again existence. It wasn’t the first time that Gira had started over. He first did it in 1997, after a 15-year stretch of constant evolution in which Swans grew from atonal bloodlust worshippers (Filth) to blissed-out neo-folkies (The Burning World) to self-flagellating maximalists (The Great Annihilator). Titling the band’s posthumous 1998 live album Swans Are Dead was Gira’s way of laying a boulder on the lid of the tomb—at least until 2010, when, after a decade at the helm of his psych-folk project Angels of Light, he rolled back the stone and brought Swans back to life.
Now, on his first Swans album since 2016’s The Glowing Man, Gira has reshuffled the deck once again. Players from throughout his various projects’ histories have rejoined him here, including several of Angels of Light’s core members (Christoph Hahn, Dana Schechter, Cassis Staudt, Larry Mullins) and pretty much the entire recent Swans lineup. As has frequently been the case over the years, Gira has swelled the group’s ranks with guest players: organist Anna von Hausswolff and her sister Maria; noise musician Ben Frost; shock-headed former street harpist and neo-cabaret singer Baby Dee; Australian improvising trio the Necks. (The latter, praised for their minimalistic attention to detail, make for an unexpected fit: When it comes to sustaining a single repetitive groove for endurance-testing lengths, the Necks are the pianissimo yin to Swans’ pile-driving yang.)
The chief difference between the recently departed Swans and their reincarnation here boils down mainly to method. Where heavy touring turned Swans’ 2010-2017 incarnation into something like a living, breathing organism—in which the band’s pummeling, long-form concert performances informed the shape of successive studio recordings, and vice versa—for Leaving Meaning Gira returned to his role as a producer, ringleader, and foreman, laying down basic tracks on his own and then inviting his contributors to fill in the blanks as they best saw fit.
Sonically, the album backs away from the dirge-rock rave-ups that defined the group’s last four albums. That’s a welcome development: By The Glowing Man, a record that often seemed intent upon dwarfing the horizon itself, they were running out of new things to say on such a scale. Leaving Meaning is shorter and simpler. Where Swans’ last three albums were all two-hour behemoths, this one clocks in at a relatively manageable 93 minutes, and only one song breaks the 12-minute mark—a significant departure from their recent habit of digging in for 20 or 30 minutes at a time.
The new record is sweeter, too, shifting its focus from raging catharsis to eye-widening beauty. Instead of the hammer-on-anvil force of recent albums, the largely acoustic palette leans toward plucked strings, brushed percussion, and sighing choirs. At least two songs are in an uncharacteristically chipper major key, and one of them (the radiant “What Is This?”) summons a sparkling beatitude reminiscent of Cocteau Twins’ Heaven or Las Vegas.
The gorgeous title track is a highlight. It’s one of two featuring the Necks’ ruminative piano-and-contrabass improvisations, and while Gira’s songwriting gravitates toward his usual contradictions (“I can be it/But not feel it/I can steal it/But not keep it/I can break it/But not heal it”), he sounds uncharacteristically calm, purring like an old cat in a bookstore window. He’s as charismatic a ranter as they come, but to hear him so sedate makes for a nice change.
“Amnesia,” which first appeared in radically different form on 1992’s Love of Life, here becomes a fingerpicked ambient waltz for strings, tympani, and choir. And when he digs into the barrel-chested depths of his register on songs like the tender, elegiac “Annaline,” he evokes the kind of weary tragedy endemic to sad drunks and wastrels. As a lyricist, Gira has always conveyed an irreparable brokenness, and in songs like this one—“Let’s burn in a fire/Let’s clean what is true” he groans—he embodies the image of a fallen man. (Rape allegations against Gira—denied by him, but never retracted by his accuser—will forever draw an uncomfortable shadow beneath Gira’s portraits of repentant sinners.)
It’s not all so gentle or so gossamer. “The Hanging Man” and “Some New Things” both reprise the pounding rave-ups of the band’s recent records and live shows, while the overdubbed chants and chain-gang rhythm of the closing “My Phantom Limb” recall the agonies of the Greed/Holy Money years. And as always, the apocalypse hangs heavy over songs braided from the strands of Gira’s holy trinity: sex, death, and the infinite. The lyrical themes here are all familiar by now: Lovers claw at each other, seeking self-annihilation. Salvation is an illusion. Negation is the only certainty.
“The Nub,” the other song with the Necks’ at its center, seems at first to be about sexual pleasure. But as it drifts and droops, and Baby Dee sings of krill, bleached fluid, and putrefying flesh, the song comes to resemble an audio portrait of a whale fall. Scavengers may feed on the decomposing meat for months; the skeleton then becomes a source of sustenance to mussels, clams, and microbes for years or even decades to come. Whether or not it’s what Gira had in mind, this ruined, rotting grandeur is a fitting metaphor for Swans’ ongoing body of work. Swans died so that new life may flourish.