The Glowing Man
, June 17th, 2016 12:18
The history of Swans comes in eras, chunks of time that are readily demarcated by fans and critics, noted for the differences in sound and the cast of characters surrounding Michael Gira. The lines eclipsing these eras, however, weren’t always clearly defined by the musician himself, instead imposed on a life and catalog full of grandiose ideas, turmoil, and persuasive emotions. Considering the more than 30 years of his career, that’s only natural. Some eras were predicated upon physical response, overpowering listeners with serrating, booming, disruptive music. At other times, Gira hunkered down with an acoustic guitar, producing more directly intimate, almost spiritual folk music. In this latest incarnation of Swans, he’s undertaken a sort of “gonzo” approach, fusing those two halves into one glorious mess. And now as that era draws to a close, Gira was stuck having to figure out how to conclude such an endless statement. Fittingly, he does so by sticking to the grandiose duality, and not really concluding much of anything. But then again, Swans has never been a band for tying things in pretty bows.
When looking to examples of this maximalist songwriting, it’s only natural to first consider the major centerpieces of the two preceding albums of this trilogy, the title track to The Seer and ‘Bring the Sun / Toussaint L’Ouvertur’ from To Be Kind. And while those behemoth pieces show the overwhelming nature of these performers, there’s more to the style than sheer volume or size. Even in their briefer moments, these albums offer an extensive essay in refined primitivism, a seemingly contradictory union of some of rock’s structural conventions with a bloodthirsty tonal elasticity that refuses to be contained. It is simultaneously intensely personal music (excoriating and abrasive, yet only to scrub away the muck built up over the true core of humanity) and something that stretches beyond the personal, reaching a place of communal entrancement.
Much like religious experience, the constellations of songs here (and their brethren on the two prior albums) rely on an intensely relatable core, a simple idea or feeling sizzling at the center that anyone can attach to. From there, the instrumentalists ripple out in meditative layers, never covering over or distracting from it, but rather reinforcing. Take, for example, the twenty-minute ‘Frankie M’; the song deals so clearly in addiction in a way that listeners can sympathize with even if they’ve never done heroin, opium, methedrine, and MDMA, thanks to the almost nauseating battering of the music.
Moreover, that connectivity is driven by some of the most primal feelings: life and death, kill or be killed. There’s a lot of violence in this record, always approached in a way that feels “provoked” by the music, backed into a corner until sharp teeth are bared and claws drawn. “Break a glass/ Stab his eye/ Choke his neck/ Nothing's left,” goes ‘Frankie M’ once the drugs and droning have done their work. “The mouth of death still calls my name/ I'll beat him on his face/ And I stab with all my strength,” Gira’s wife, Jennifer, sings on ‘When Will I Return?’, after finding herself attacked and “splayed” on the curb.
However, that predation and violence, especially regarding that latter song, takes on a strange resonance considering the widely publicised accusations leveled at Gira by songwriter Larkin Grimm. Last year, Grimm accused Gira of rape, taking advantage of his role as mentor and label boss in a sexual encounter. The precise details of their relationship and that situation are beyond my purview as a critic, but their proximity to an album featuring a song written for his wife to sing about sexual assault is undeniably disconcerting. While this is contextual, and not inherent to the album, it’s impossible to shake entirely from the back of my head. As a woman. As a human.
The question then becomes to what extent a piece of art must be tied to the circumstances surrounding its release. In our digital era, it seems unlikely that anything can be viewed in isolation, unshaded by its context. However unfair it may be, no issue can be excised and considered on its own without the five “If you like this story, you might also like…” links to related stories. We’re suffocating underneath a paper trail of accountability.
As an individual, I might focus exclusively on these allegations or I might not at all. As a critic, I feel that choice is complicated; to ignore it would deny my instincts, but to focus on it denies the validity of a powerful piece of artistic expression and sets a precedent that could undermine the artistic process. That might seem self-serving and overstated, but in the Internet age, that sort of conversation stays with a person, and each and every one of us contributes to the way in which it is seen.
To that end, the attempts at accountability and transparency (at least theoretically) with which Gira has approached the conversation shade the analysis of the album as well. He has responded to Grimm’s accusations, admitting to fault even if it’s not exactly what she continues to detail - her truth. He wrote a song that deals realistically and hauntingly with violence against women, one which his wife repeats with fiery insistence: “I'm alive.” To that end, The Glowing Man isn’t sunk by the weight of the situation; appropriately, the scars aren’t covered in the trilogy’s drive towards transcendence, the entire messy conversation of life on full display.
On the shambling, hypnotic ‘The World Looks Red/The World Looks Black’, Gira’s vocal takes sweep and creak like monastic chants, a constant guitar jangle at the back corners of the mix pinging the brain. “Walk on my fingertips,” he intones. “The weight of my body is too much to bear.” The song rocks and spins, a physical manifestation of meditation in which mindfulness of the body, however painful, pushes away the world. On ‘Cloud Of Unknowing’, a sludgy rhythm drills into the skull as Gira repeats a simpler mantra: “I am, I am, I am, I am.” This over-stretched delivery has become a staple of this era of Swans, Gira getting to essential truths through repetition of a simple phrase until it becomes mind-blowing, all over a constantly churning, magma-like musical core. Opener ‘Cloud Of Forgetting’ grinds on ferocious guitar and Thor Harris’ percussive squall, erupting into orgasmic motion, a steely force field of orchestral menace.
Three albums of explosive, physical spirituality had to come to some sort of conclusion, and with The Glowing Man, that comes in the form of the relatively unrestricted, undefeated and optimistic ‘Finally, Peace’. Michael and Jennifer unite for more harmonies, this time with a brighter mantra. “The glory is mine,” they repeat in a near-chorale march. Of course, this builds to a droning, eastern blend of tonal oms, as a Swans record is wont to do; they don’t see a world that can offer an entirely sweet conclusion. But for a moment there, Swans revel in a pop-ish piano-driven bounce. All of this exorcism and meditation has come to something, even if it’s not true transcendence.