Thursday, October 31, 2019

album review: 'leaving meaning.' by swans

So what constitutes an artist's finale?

Because you can tell that's a question that's hung heavy on a lot of people, from an artist close to his deathbed to an act realizing they've got no more stories left to tell and must dissolve. Of course, in both cases if the artist goes on living or the band finds another burst of inspiration, said 'finale' can hit an odd note - not everyone can do what David Bowie did with Blackstar, after all, and you can tell with the themes and arcs of the last several Willie Nelson albums that he's expected his passing long before now. And I bring this up because the last time I reviewed Swans in 2016 with their massive album The Glowing Man, I was operating with the information that it would be their last album, especially given the thematic heft given to massive questions of God and the purpose of humanity. Turns out there was some truth to that, as mastermind Michael Gira said that it was their last album with anything close to a stable lineup, with the only returning and consistent member this time being lap steel guitar player Kristof Hahn and other former members and guests only brought on to realize specific moments on certain songs. And while with a title like leaving meaning. you can make the argument they are once again going for a finale vibe - which was what some of the hype was indicating - I was curious to put in the hours of time and really absorb this Swans album - so what did we get?

Well, I'll say this: I normally assert at some point in a Swans review that it's a difficult album to process and contextualize and yet eventually I'll pull out some sort of existential truth that'll justify the hours of warped, shuddering drones and unsettling atmosphere and oblique lyrics. And yet the more listens I gave leaving meaning., the more I started to feel like this time around, Swans wasn't just revisiting old territory, but they were taking an increasingly diffuse set of records and reaching even flimsier territory than before. That's not saying that it's bad - the material Swans is pulling from was a good era for the band, mostly surrounding the White Life from the Mouth Of Infinity and Love Of Life era, including a reinterpretation of a song from the latter album - but this time around it just isn't hitting with the same spark or groove or emotional intensity, leaving it feeling like something of a shadow of their past.

And to understand that, I actually went back to relisten to those two albums of theirs from the early 90s - both of which hold up pretty damn well, for the record - and tried to pinpoint the difference, which really came out in two places. The first was compositionally, but that was no surprise: Swans had embraced more long-form drone and slow-burning crescendos since they had reformed, and it had often been the most gripping part of their albums this decade... which means here that without many of those surging climaxes and dramatic swings, the extended, repetitive length of the songs start to become noticeable, even without any of the gargantuan monstrosities of The Glowing Man or To Be Kind. That's not saying there aren't instrumental change-ups - the hook of 'The Hanging Man' certainly tries to twist the groove with its warped horns and mantra-like swells, 'Sunfucker' rides its brittle cascades and warping cascades of synth and bells into a pretty killer groove section, and the vocal harmonies did build into the melancholic elegance of 'What Is This?' - but if you're hunting for the grand crescendos that often justified the extended length, you're going to come up wanting. In fact, where I'd argue leaving meaning. finds its most emotive and potent moments are in the slow-burn restraint where the lack of driving groove becomes less of a concern, from the hazy twinkles and piano-touched atmosphere of 'Annaline' to the haunted, dusty depth of 'Cathedrals Of Heaven' featuring its offkilter accordion accents, all to the hazy acoustics and jingling sleigh bells of 'It's Coming It's Real', with the haunting vocals of Anna von Hausswolff building as the percussion grows. Hell, the song with anything close to To Be Kind's brand of dangerous swagger is 'Some New Things' with its fuzzed out boogie vibe, but even then, outside of some background guitar flourishes, it doesn't really evolve much. And then you get moments that are trying to be more experiment, embracing stuttering cascades of acoustics or strings or fluttery keys, with the song going for the most obvious brand of unsettling creepiness being 'The Nub'... which sadly fell completely flat for me, not because Baby Dee didn't put in considerable effort, but more because the composition from Australian improvisational band The Necks never feels like it coalesced.

The other example, of course, is 'My Phantom Limb', which with its echoing, overlapping vocals, ponderous drums, and unsettled vibe off the darker horns reminds me most of Swans' no wave era... but it's also for some reason placed as the closing track and not only does it highlight the utterly wonky sequencing of the entire project, it also comes after a song that could have easily served as a solid closer that fit thematically and musically! And it doesn't even have the feel of Swans throwing a curveball for a pitch-dark ending, even if the song kind of resolves near the end, instead more of a track that they didn't know where to place so it just wound up there. And that's where we have to discuss the elephant in the room: namely how the vast majority of these songs were already recorded or released in a demo form earlier this year, released to fund the larger arrangement - the only two that weren't are an instrumental opening and the aptly titled 'Some New Things' - and what's jarring is that when looking at that sequencing, it's a lot better than that of leaving, meaning.! It only served to highlight how fragmented this project feels from track to track, and while we'll get to why that was indeed part of Gira's point, it doesn't really make for a listening experience that flows well. And unfortunately, another part of this is Michael Gira himself, who in continuing from The Glowing Man is less visceral than ever - hell, at some points not only does he sound disconnected, but outright offkey in his drone that sounds increasingly nasal and mumbling - and again, we'll get to why he's doing this in a minute, but if he's looking to show non-engagement or disinterest in his own material, this is the way to do it, and if he doesn't seem to care all that much, why should I?

Well, this is where we would normally talk content, and again, I have to give Gira some credit for a fascinating thematic core here, because the title of the album isn't lying in how this album is 'leaving' meaning. Well, 'leaving' might be the wrong word: more of the conscious understanding that thanks to the passage of time or societal upheaval the true meaning behind art becomes intangible and increasingly undefined, especially as the artist passes towards memory and cannot speak to it - hell, even to him he understands that explicit meaning painted in art is ultimately never quite precise as highlighted on the title track, sometimes even transcending language itself, which is a natural fit for the primal, guttural language that Gira has been using for years now. And it's also not just to the audience at large, but the artist in relationship to their own art: in knowing that something has been released, even what might seem like a love song like 'Annaline' picks up more meaning when you realize it's less about a partner or child and more abstract. That is one reason why the most consistent metaphor has the artist becoming nothing, sacrificed for art, infusing undefined spaces only filled with tension, and it's also no surprise that to fill that absence, the extremes of emotion dominate, from the apocalyptic hopelessness that dominates 'It's Coming It's Real' and the rerecorded 'Amnesia' with its prescient political jibes, to the religious extremism of 'Sunfucker', inspired by Aztec sun worship and not the first time Gira has highlighted the desperate, bloody extremes we go to find meaning. And it becomes all the more stark on cuts like 'Cathedrals of Heaven' where in the face of unknowable omniscience the craven human nature is all the more gory and exposed, like a cosmic babe on 'The Nub', and where on 'My Phantom Limb' Gira lists that what he considers sacred down to the primal soup and most innocuous of things... because of any of it art and ideas can be created, where slippery meaning might materialize for a time or just remain alien to us all but the raw experience is worth it all the same. 

In other words, this might be the apotheosis of Swans' embrace of postmodernism, which given their no wave roots was always intrinsic to their sound but now circling to refer to the fleeting meaning of their art itself, or whether it even matters beyond the indecipherable experience... but one of the great criticisms of postmodernism in art in that you can tumble towards abstraction so much that the emotional core just doesn't connect anymore beyond nihilism, and that's arguably my biggest issue with leaving meaning.. It's art where the theme and text is literally about art's loss of meaning providing that meaning can ever be defined - which even giving my issues with nihilistic art I can appreciate if the execution is emotionally gripping or visceral or the experience hits that emotive transcendence. And here... it's patchy, with the most striking moments for me coming in the human moments of artist and audience that are grounded in defined human emotion, where meaning can be found. And it's why while I understand the apparent disinterest in Gira's delivery or the fractured sequencing - to further obfuscate meaning - it blunts any emotional connection, especially when you can look to the past and the sounds from which Swans has drawn before and draws here. And while I like those sounds enough to give this album a 7/10, it's also not a project I'm inclined to revisit much, and it's hard to recommend. Granted, if you're one of the fans who has never cared much for understanding Swans' deeper message - if it even can be understood - and just letting the musical experience wash over you, this'll be enough... but even against the obliteration of the cosmos, I like to keep meaning around for a little longer.

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