ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE 405 (NOW DEFUNCT)
When Michael Gira picks up his paintbrush and raises it to a canvas, he conjures an atmosphere incomparably foreboding. With a mind as unrelentingly dark as Gira’s, fans can rest assured—or hidden under your covers—that the latest reincarnation of Swans and the project’s newest album, leaving meaning. is black as the night.
However, there is an impossibly visible modicum of light at the end of the tunnel this time around; an iridescent optimism that we’ve yet to experience in its full capacity from Gira in the past (except for certain cuts from White Light From The Mouth of Infinity and his Angels of Light side-project). That being said, leaving meaning. sees the ever-evolving experimental rock outfit do just that—evolve. Gira, with the help of many talents, has concocted Swans’ most beautiful yet most bleak sounding record of its 30-plus years existence.
Throughout leaving meaning., Swans find comfort in resting upon a cerated, double-edged sword of mood, where there are moments that see Gira perpetuate feelings of melancholy and post-rock ethereality, and other moments that entertain fiendish droning and Southern Gothic dissonance. This is a balancing act most dangerous for any artist, but Swans are no stranger to taking chances, for they are no ordinary musical act. Gira and company navigate this space and this tension with ease, causing listeners to squirm in discomfort over just how paradoxical this album can be.
Per usual, leaving meaning. is yet another heaping pile of id, reflecting humanity’s most debased and most vile thoughts. However, from it, a plume of shimmering beauty can be detected, an aura that harkens to Gira’s days as the frontman of Angels of Light and even some of the more melodic ambient-folk moments from the last reiteration of Swans. Beautiful experimental folk through and through, the dark, nihilistic sound from earlier Swans records has transformed into something quite bright, and though it isn’t a joyful shift in sound per se, Gira does wrench out a dream-like quality from despondency, pain, and human depravity. In other words, while pain and anguish are all contemplated, a blissful rush of instrumentation is usually ready to wash listeners clean of their deep-seated vileness.
Take, for instance, ‘Annaline’; the album’s second track commences with delicate piano keys and synth in a similar vein as Sigur Ros, and once you also consider Gira’s endearing lyrics (which are actually quite tear-jerking), “Right here and right now/ The first night of our life/ I'm somewhere in you/ And I'll never get out,” you’ll be quick to wonder if this is the same band—and understandably so. Cuts like the title track and lead single ‘It’s Coming, It’s Real’ may not inspire the same type of ethereality as ‘Annaline’, but they are composed to a scale that will bring you to tears.
This is especially true for the crescendo-filled ‘What is This?’, where Gira and friends have taken a large, symphonic swing at hope and joy—at least that seems to be the case (you never know with Gira). Aside from Swans doing its best Illinois-era Sufjan Stevens impression—musically—Gira paints arguably his most life-giving portrait of intimacy: “There is a star in my throat/ Yeah, a voice, there is hope/ In a space in between/ Runs the milk of relief/ If motion is time/ I am water, I will rise/ To your bed on a cloud/ Where you stand Where you writhe.”
With many radiant and mesmerizing moments to dissolve yourself into, there’s an ugly side to Swans that will never be contained and will inevitably spit you out, Though these slow melodic arrangements and Gira’s intensely sobering self-reflection makes you want to write a scholarly essay regarding the philosophy of nihilism in an age where hope is becoming more imperative than ever, leaving meaning. is peppered with bat-shit crazy moments that’ll debase you to the most primitive form of humankind. 'Annaline' and 'What is This?' are undeniably gorgeous love songs, but come on—there’s no such thing as a Swans record without bleakness and absolute desolation. After all, Gira, with the many iterations of Swans, can be credited for pushing no-wave, neo-folk, and gothic music toward a new kind of darkness. With leaving meaning., Michael Gira proves once again that not a single artist can hold a candle to the dark, hidden spaces his dread-filled mind.
By way of Swans’ Southern Gothic template, Gira seizes listeners’ comfortability, waxing philosophical about sex and the natural and inevitable degradation of humanity—and the result is utterly disturbing. ‘The Hanging Man’, the record’s second single is a pinpoint definition of insanity—skewed a few degrees awry. In iconic Swans fashion, ‘The Hanging Man’ undulates for 10 minutes, building into a nightmare without an end in sight. One expects the song to lash out into a blistering climax, but it doesn’t—it remains stuck in its trench, digging itself deeper toward an unfathomable hell as Gira yelps and howls like a madman to close out. This is quintessential Swans goodness!
Then there’s ‘Sunfucker’: holy, shit. Simply put, ‘Sunfucker’ is one of the most disturbing songs Gira’s ever written. With eerie, chanting vocals in the background, and incessant chimes clamoring in unison, there’s something ritualistic about this track that transcends what’s considered “off-putting.”
Though I could go on longer about the tangible wickedness of leaving meaning., by gushing over the anxiety-ridden ‘My Phantom Limb’ or ‘The Nub’, I’m afraid I may retreat into an anxiety attack myself. While listening to leaving meaning. for the very first time, I couldn’t help but feel as if I were standing in the middle of an apocalyptic storm. However, as mentioned prior, there’s an uncharacteristic amount of hope and beauty perforating this nightmare. With this unexpected turn, the provoker of gloom delivers warmth and reassurance—to an extent—bridging the elusive gap between beauty and unsightliness that even a band like Swans had failed to reconcile, until now.
THE 405 RATING: 8.5/10