My favorite version of Swans is the version that existed from 1987 to 1996 with Jarboe. It was hypnotic and dark, heavier than the Cure or Joy Divison. But when bandleader Michael Gira reformed Swans after a 14-year hiatus, I was happy to get whatever I was given. They had not really picked up where they left off, as much I tried to convince myself, which was most apparent by the time we got to To Be Kind. They began playing festivals, sandwiched between jam bands, and their audience changed from more industrial-strength goths to trust-fund hippies. I recall these growing pains to say their latest, Leaving Meaning., bridges the gap from Soundtracks for the Blind and My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky.
Its songs originally released in demo form as part of the crowdfunding-reward release What Is This?, Leaving Meaning. shows that the biggest difference between now and previous Swans efforts, aside from the lack of Jarboe, is Gira’s vocals. He reaches down and pulls out the richer, more resonant baritone that had been largely discarded in favor of more reckless ranting. Right from “Annaline,” you can hear his voice going back to something closer to how it sounded in the ’90s. Going back to Filth, he did his share of even more feral ranting, and those first-wave-of-Swans albums are not nearly as good as the band they evolved into. The droning sonic grooves of the more recent albums are not all forsaken, either, found here on “The Hanging Man.”
The album really stands shoulder-to-shoulder to the glory days by the time we get to “Amnesia,” which is darker and lush, with choral vocals courtesy of Anna Von Hausswolff. The one long-term member of the band featured in this incarnation is pedal steel player Kristof Hahn, though bassist Yoyo Rohm is a fitting addition as he has long been part of New York avant garde circles. There are jazz underpinnings to the title track as piano drips melodies under the gorgeous tapestry of sound woven over it. If played loud enough, and while high, “Sun Fucker” is probably mind blowing, though after the first half’s weirdness it shifts into an awesome groove with unexpected female vocals. The lyrics to “Cathedrals of Heaven” (“Please open my chest/Please curl in my nest“) are creepy enough to accompany the David Lynch-like mood. And overall, the production is so nuanced in the album’s mix that it had me, totally sober, looking around my room as the bells leading into the “Nub” sounded as if they were outside my window.
Great sonic depth colors the atmosphere of “It’s Coming It’s Real,” while the more rock ‘n’ roll tone of “Some New Things” is countered by the drone of the song. There is a hint of ’50s pop to “What is This,” yet it’s bathed in weird ambiance. The drone continues on “Phantom Limb,” and the overall darker tone is what makes this one of the band’s stronger efforts. Darkness is the sonic color that resonates most with me on a spiritual level when I commune with music, and I am thankful Gira is taking me back to my favorite temple for this aural celebration of it. With Leaving Meaning., Swans haven’t necessarily abandoned the festival fans of this decade, they are just dimming the lights and pouring red wine. The world is not going to get any brighter, so Swans continue to soundtrack the heralding of shadows.