Traces of the Real TBK review
June 15, 2014 by Hugh
There is a song on the new Swans album, To Be Kind, that is directly inspired by Lars Von Trier’s brilliant 2011 film Melancholia. The film tells the story of two sisters, Claire and Justine, and their differing reactions to the impending arrival of a rogue planet, which, as becomes apparent as the film progresses, is in danger of crashing into and destroying the Earth. The first half of the film revolves around a wedding party at a country house for Justine, who is to be married the next day, an event that Claire is largely responsible for organising. Claire is at home within this world of social and familial ritual, however Justine is not, and her behaviour becomes more and more erratic and unhinged as the evening progresses. The night ends in disarray, with Justine’s husband-to-be and the rest of the guests leaving in disgust, and the wedding cancelled. The second part of the film concentrates on Claire and Justine (along with Claire’s husband and son) as they await the arrival of the planet Melancholia. It initially seems that it won’t collide with Earth at all, however it eventually becomes undeniable that it will, and that there is no escape (Claire’s husband commits suicide when he finally accepts this). Claire goes through stages of denial, fear, panic and despair, whereas Justine calmly accepts the situation, and smilingly tries to comfort Claire right up until the final moments.
The title of the song, Kirsten Supine, is a direct reference to one of the film’s most striking images (and the one used on the publicity posters): actress Kirsten Dunst (who plays Justine) in a wedding dress lying on her back in a pool of water, holding flowers, and staring calmly at the camera. Many of the lyrics refer to scenes in the film (“May moonlight fall upon your breast”, “May planets crash, may God rain ash”) and also more subtly mirror its themes of dichotomy, polarity and contradiction (“I will let it go, I can’t let it go”, “I won’t let it go, I can let it go”). However what is really remarkable about it is not the words but the music, and more specifically how closely this music evokes the mood, tone and atmosphere of Melancholia. The song starts off with delicate playing and gently sung vocals, but then over the course of the next 10 minutes or so, relentlessly builds to a terrifyingly climax. A harsh pounding beat drives the whole thing steadily forward while swirling atonal melodies and drones circle around, slowly adding to the sense of unease and disquiet. There is no way out and only one possible end, and when the final crashing chord signals the conclusion of the song, it comes with the same sense of relief that we get when the rogue planet finally crashes into the Earth in Von Trier’s film. This is only one of many such moments on To Be Kind, moments where the band push themselves further and further towards that point where structure, harmony and rhythm collapse into each other, sucking everything with them, and leaving nothing behind. What makes To Be Kind so great however, and what it shares with Melancholia, is the extent to which there is some kind of ecstasy to be found in this destruction. Like Justine smiling at the approaching apocalypse, songs like Bring The Sun carry us upwards and upwards, with the massive crescendos of sound blotting out any thought of what’s going to happen when we come down.
This engagement with states of extremity and intensity is, of course, nothing new in Swans’ music. Micheal Gira formed the band in the early 80s, taking the no-wave spirit of atonality and experimentation and combining it with snarling minor-key post-punk, and thereby creating an enduringly influential branch of the New York avant-garde. Early Swans shows were notorious for their crushing volume and for their visceral and confrontational nature. Even prior to forming the band, Gira was interested in extreme forms of performance – in a recent interview he talks about how, as a young art student in 1970s California, he participated in a ritualistic art performance by Hermann Nitsch involving blood and animal carcasses. The contemporary incarnation of the band, back playing and recording for a few years now after a long hiatus, has lost none of this intensity, this willingness to push things to the extremes when necessary (the Birmingham show at which the above photograph was taken was so loud at times that you could physically feel the air moving around in front of your face), but it’s combined with something else, something more openly transcendent, something that seeks to bring the listener and performer alike into a kind of heightened state through repetition and volume.
Gira has often spoken about his interest in films, and frequently cites Melancholia as one that has inspired him. However, there seems to be something more going on here than a simple case of one artist being influenced by another. I would suggest that both of them are in fact tapping into something that is widespread and current in contemporary culture, and this is the question of what happens when we accept that there might be no meaning to anything at all. How do we live in a secular world that has abandoned any pretence that there is any particular reason why we are here? How do we reconcile ourselves to the terrifying consequences of what science tells us about our (insignificant) place in the universe and the fact that at some point in the future, not just ourselves, but our entire world will cease to be? These questions have preoccupied philosophical thinking since Nietzche proclaimed the death of God but have intensified following postmodernism’s abandonment of grand narratives of human destiny and progress. Their most obvious contemporary expression can be seen in contemporary philosophical movements such as speculative realism, which seeks to think about a world for which human subjects are not the centre. For example, French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux maintains not just that there is no particular reason why things are as they are, but that there is no particular reason why they must stay that way. In other words, we do not live in a universe that is subject to some immutable laws that we can then seek to understand, but rather we live in one that is radically contingent and whose “laws” might change and/or disappear at any moment.
It’s not just within philosophy that we find these sorts of questions being asked, they seem to have permeated popular discourse in all its forms. As an example of this, we need look no further than current TV dramas. In True Detective, the nihilistic protagonist Rust Cohle adopts a world-view that rejects all spiritual or humanistic values, calmly accepts the meaninglessness of human existence, and at one point goes as far as to suggest that consciousness itself is an evolutionary error (for more on the philosophical underpinnings of Cohle’s character see this excellent interview with Paul Ennis). In a recent episode of the luridly entertaining fantasy epic Game Of Thrones a character lay slowly dying. There is no revelation about life or the potential after-life, but instead we get a few lines of dialogue, almost directly lifted from Beckett’s play Waiting For Godot, that leave us in no doubt that all that awaits is an existential void. “Nothing could be worse than this”, he says, to which one of the other characters replies “Nothing is not better nor worse than anything. Nothing is nothing”.
In Melancholia, Justine clearly understands this, in a way that all the other characters fail to do. This understanding puts her at odds with everyone else in the film, and makes it impossible for her to properly participate in all the social rituals that she is expected to participate in. It’s only when the end is near, and when suddenly the world becomes one in which everyone is forced to confront its imminent destruction, that Justine finds some sort of peace. She treats Claire with affection and tries to help her understand what she herself has understood all along, tries to help her comes to terms with the situation. It’s only in a world where everyone has to accept what Justine has long ago learned to accept that a more pragmatic and constructive way of relating to each other can take hold. I like to think that there is something similar going on with Swans’ music. It’s not, and has never been, a simple wallowing in the worst aspects of human nature, or a nihilistic sneering at the futility of existence, but rather an insistence that we accept the lack of meaning at the heart of things, and then move on. Maybe then we can do exactly what Justine does at the end of Melancholia, which is possibly the only thing that we can do, which is to strive to be kind.
The photograph at the top is of Swans performing at the Supersonic festival in Birmingham at the end of May this year. It’s an accidental double exposure, each of several minutes duration, where I exposed the same sheet of film twice from two different viewpoints. Sincere thanks to Michael Gira for agreeing to my suggestion of coming along and photographing the gig and for being so courteous and helpful. Thanks also to Swans tour manager Brandon and to Caroline and Lisa at Supersonic. Swans will be on tour around the world for the next 18 months or so. If they come to your town you would be a fool not to go and see them. To Be Kind is out now on Young God Records and can be purchased here