Wall of Sound leaving meaning. Review

SWANS – Leaving Meaning
Released: October 25th, 2019

Swans lineup

Michael Gira | Vocals, Guitars

Leaving Meaning marks the 15th studio album of SWANS’ long and incredibly diverse discography, the first album since frontman Michael Gira formally dissolved the most recent lineup of the band in favour of a revolving door of handpicked musicians. In typical SWANS style, Leaving Meaning is a departure from the orgasmic climax-oriented post-rock of their recent trilogy of albums (The SeerTo Be Kind, and The Glowing Man). Instead, Gira has revisited (intentionally or otherwise) a number of sounds familiar to both Swans earlier material and those familiar with his side project Angels of Light.

Fans will likely bicker about where the influences on Leaving Meaning came from. Some will compare its gothic folk elements to the highly underrated Burning World, others will say that it takes the religious themes of Children of God and splices them with the spiritual and post-rock elements of White Light From the Mouth of Infinity, while some will claim that this is merely a SWANS flavoured Angels of Light record (alongside an infinitude of other combinations and comparisons).  

All of these perspectives and comparisons are true to some degree, and it is effectively impossible to talk about this album without referencing SWANS earlier material. This is easily the bands most metatextual album since Soundtracks for the Blind, which served to summarise the history of SWANS sound up until that point. Although Leaving Meaning clearly draws influences from previous works, it does not function exactly in this way. It feels closer to a transitional stage for the sound of Swans, although it is unclear exactly where this is going. 

As the title suggests, Leaving Meaning continues the spiritual and ethereal themes of The Glowing Man (gone almost entirely are the paranoid freakouts of To Be Kind). Various references are made to both the Buddha and John of the Cross (similar to the references in The Glowing Man to the mystic Christian text ‘Cloud of Unknowing’), leading to one of Swans most consistently thematic concept albums; a meditation on mindlessness, ego death, succumbing to the divine, and other equally Parmenidean topics.

In the paired-back ballad ‘Leaving Meaning’Gira slowly alternates between contradictions: “I can touch it but not hold it / I can be it but not know it / I can reach it but won’t touch it” and ‘My Phantom Limb’ (the closest thing to SWANS tackling spoken word / rap) Gira spectacularly concludes the album with “And I’m flying, and I’m rising / And I’m flying, I am flying / Finally flying, I am flying / Finally flying, yes we’re rising / Endlessly rising, and we’re flying…”, a sort of heavenly ascension.   

Similarly, the track ‘Sunfucker’ (both a highlight on the album and a continuation with Gira’s obsession with the sun. See: ‘I Am The Sun’‘Bring the Sun’‘God Damn the Sun’‘Song for the Sun’) has Gira yelping “Surrender! Surrender!”, repeating the phrase “Believer, believer, believer, believe or not Believer…” for several minutes and asking “Why am I on this earth?”.

Although, as mentioned prior, various comparisons can be made to the previous sounds of SWANS, lyrically this feels like an evolution of Gira’s talents (shocking, considering both his age and sheer amount of output). It feels as though the transcendent climactic monoliths of Swans previous three albums have been distilled to pure lyrical form with a much broader range of instrumentation. 

Musically, there is little to say about this album besides sheer praise. ‘Sunfucker’ is easily up there with SWANS‘ best tracks, with its mind-shattering mid-song shift and commanding vocals from Gira. Others tracks like ‘My Phantom Limb’ (one of Swan’s best album closers), ‘Amnesia’ (a genius reworking of a track from Love of Life’ with some divine backing vocals from Maria and Anna Von Hausswolff), and the Sigur Rós-esque ‘What is This?’ (the most radical departure from Swans previous work, likely the most joyous and lush of their discography) are wonderful additions.

The only slightly questionable tracks on Leaving Meaning are ‘The Hanging Man’ and ‘Cathedrals of Heaven’. The former feels like a To Be Kind’ B-side (like a deflated ‘Bring the Sun’) that anxiously builds up with no real release. The latter is a track that is beautiful in its own right but slightly stifles the flow of the album; a minimalistic 8 minute follow up to ‘Leaving Meaning’ (both featuring The Necks) that feels like it could have been cut (sadly, the vinyl version of the album will not include the superior track ‘Some New Things’ instead).

Purists of SWANS 2010’s material will find the lack of drawn out climaxes disappointing, but for fans of SWANS entire oeuvre this will likely be another brilliant staple in a line of similarly profound records.

SWANS – Leaving Meaning tracklisting:

  1. Hums
  2. Annaline
  3. The Hanging Man
  4. Amnesia
  5. Leaving Meaning
  6. Sunfucker
  7. Cathedrals of Heaven
  8. The Nub
  9. It’s Coming It’s Real
  10. Some New Things
  11. What is This?
  12. My Phantom Limb

Rating 9/10
Leaving Meaning is out NOW, Grab a copy here
Reviewed by Elliott Nunn (@alphaalpacapack)